Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_welfare reforms i

Why did British politicians see the need for welfare reforms in the early 1900s?

Source 4

A letter from Winston Churchill to one of his officials in the Board of Trade, 1908


CHAR 2/33/1-2

Simplified Transcript

My dear Wilson-Fox

Please check over my ideas and see if you can find statistics to back me up. In my view the main concern of the English working class is security from bad times, illness, unemployment and similar problems. In Germany there’s a system of insurance which covers all workers against these problems. Here in England we have a collection of trade unions, charities and similar groups. I believe that we need a basic system to provide a small amount of help for all workers along with the charities, trade unions etc. That way we’ll have the best of the German and English systems. I’m going to speak about these ideas soon and I’d like your views and supporting information/data.

Original Transcript

My dear Wilson-Fox

Would you very kindly examine, illuminate, & fortify the following:-
The main need of the English working-classes is Security. In Germany, where the industrial system has developed under State control with all the advantages of previous British experience, uniform arrangements exist for insurance of workmen against accidents & sickness, for provision for old age, and through labour bureaus etc for employment & unemployment. No such state organization exists in England. Its place is supplied by an immense amount of voluntary private machinery in the shape of friendly and benefit societies, trade unions & the like. Comparing the two systems in their practical working, it may be said that what the English system loses in uniformity it gains in flexibility, in spontaneity, & possibly even in economy. But in one respect the German system has an enormous advantage. It catches everybody. The meshes of our safety net are only adapted to subscribers, & all those who are not found on any of those innumerable lists go smashing down on the pavement. It is this very class, the residue, the rearguard, call it what you will, for whom no provision exists in our English machinery, who have neither the character nor the resources to make provision for themselves, who require the aid of the State.

No one w[oul]d propose to substitute the German for the English system. Such a change is beyond the wit of man to execute. But if we were able to underpin the whole existing social security apparatus with a system of comparatively low-grade state safeguards, we should in the result obtain something that would combine the greatest merits both of the English & the German systems.

I should very much like to have your views & information on this. I am to speak at Birmingham on the 23rd & these ideas of minimum standards of life and wages, of Security against going to the Devil through accident, sickness, or weakness of character, & of competition upwards but not downwards, will be my general theme.

Yours sincerely,
Winston S Churchill

What is this source?

This extract is from a letter written by Winston Churchill to Arthur Wilson-Fox. Wilson-Fox was Controller of the Labour and Statistical Department of the Board of Trade. In essence, this meant that he would be better informed than almost anybody else about levels of poverty, unemployment and related social problems.

Background to this source

Churchill was preparing for a speech in which he was planning to call for a basic system of social security which would provide a minimal level of support for all working people in case of illness, unemployment or other hardships such as accidents. By 1908 Churchill was a leading figure in the Liberal Party and was a government minister in charge of the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade was responsible for a wide range of issues including the health of the economy in general, regulating industries on areas such as safety, liaising between trade unions and government and other areas of concern such as unemployment.

In the letter Churchill is asking Fox-Wilson to provide him with statistics to support his arguments about the German system and his proposals for a welfare system for British workers. One of Churchill’s areas of responsibility was the welfare of workers, including unemployment and the bigger problem of underemployment – where workers could only get work some of the time, often for poor wages. Churchill was an admirer of the German system of social insurance which did provide basic benefits. He was probably also conscious that the rival Labour Party were trying to gain support from the working classes by demanding a welfare system to help working people.

Many of the earlier handwritten letters in the Churchill Archive were written on writing paper which was originally folded (like a booklet). The papers have been flattened and photographed on both sides.
So: read the right hand side of the first image on the screen first (this would have been the front page of the letter) and then read the left hand side of the second image (which would have been inside the folded sheet), followed by the opposite side. Then go back to the left hand side of the first image (which, when the letter was folded, would have been at the back) and then on to the third image and the fourth.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why British politicians began to see the need for welfare reforms in this period. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. To whom was Churchill writing and why?
  2. What points was he making about the German system?
  3. What were the strengths of the English and German systems?
  4. What is Churchill planning to speak about?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

  On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill is an admirer of the German system.    
Churchill wants a better provision for British workers.    
Churchill thinks the German system is better than the British system.    
Churchill is worried that Britain might fall behind Germany in terms of efficiency.    
Churchill’s concerns are based on morals and the welfare of the workers.    

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • At the time this letter was written, the Liberal government had brought in a number of welfare reforms. School Meals (1906) and Old Age Pensions (1908) were the most high profile. Churchill was eager to extend the welfare provision offered by the government.
  • What is interesting here is Churchill’s motivation. Is he sympathetic to the British worker or jealous of the efficiency of the German worker, seeing him as a rival?

Source 5

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