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“Life Will Become Tolerable to Many”: The National Insurance Act of 1911

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 17, 2013

If you’re a reader of Dickens or many other 19th century novelists, or a listener to Les Miserables, or a watcher of movies and TV series set in that era, you have some notion, however romanticized, of what it meant to be poor in the past: When you lived by your daily labor, earning barely enough to survive another day with no chance to save anything for the future, a day without labor meant that you – and all your dependents – went hungry. Very many days without labor could put you into the streets, as well as hungry.

In ‘As Arranged’ one of Keepa’s most popular posts ever, Anne (U.K.) illustrated one incomprehensible effect of poverty from 1923. In 1915, the Church conducted a special fast collection throughout the U.S. church to help European Saints on all sides of the war then raging in Europe – one of the first effects of World War I was to throw tens of thousands of workers out of employment and their families into immediate hunger and distress. Poverty and its severe effects were closer to the daily lives of most of the world, even the industrialized West, in the early 20th century than most of us can imagine without such reminders.

It was in this context that Great Britain, under the leadership of its Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, passed its National Insurance Act of 1911. This Act required wage earners, their employers, and taxpayers to contribute regular sums to an insurance plan that provided a small measure of safety in case a worker was incapacitated by illness or injury. The Act did not provide medical care for a workman’s wife or children or aged parents, but it did ensure that if the wage earner himself became unable to work, neither he nor his dependents would be left entirely without resources. The plan provided medical treatment for a worker’s tuberculosis – the scourge of mill workers and miners and many others in pre-penicillin days – and was so advanced that it provided maternity benefits to women workers.

This National Insurance Act provided minimal benefits to only a limited number of people, but it was the start to a kind of social conscience that recognized misfortune (accident, illness, or unemployment beyond a worker’s control) as a potential threat that could be guarded against by cooperation – sort of like the “herd immunity” that protects us all, even the weakest and sickest and most vulnerable, when we cooperate in fighting contagious disease through the immunization of sufficient numbers of people.

Early in 1912, Apostle Rudger Clawson, who was serving as president of the European Mission with headquarters in Liverpool, England, received a pamphlet explaining the new National Insurance Act. He studied it carefully, examining both its cooperative method of financing and the benefits it promised. He was so impressed by what he read that he sent the pamphlet to Joseph F. Smith. The new law was “closely in harmony with the spirit of the gospel in so far as it seeks to relieve suffering and make life worth living,” he wrote. “It is certainly a wonderful piece of legislation and marks Lloyd George as one of the greatest living statesmen.”

Then he wrote to Lloyd George himself:

[letterhead: European Mission]

January 29th, 1912

The Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, M.P.,
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
London

Sir:

I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with you. We have never met, but permit me to say that I have followed with the profoundest interest your public utterances and all that has appeared in the news prints within my reach relative to the insurance act. A pamphlet issued by the Liverpool Daily Post entitled: “The National Insurance Act. How it affects you,” gives a clear and comprehensive idea of this truly wonderful bill. Although it reads like a romance, or fairy tale, yet I take it that Mr. Reginald Stanes, the writer, is accurate and absolutely truthful in his analysis.

After due and thoughtful consideration, you will pardon me, Mr. George, in saying that in my humble opinion this is one of the greatest measures ever enacted into law. It breathes forth the true spirit of Christian charity, and will be far reaching, how far we know not nor can we at all conceive at this juncture, in its beneficent action. It means a great and permanent uplifting of the working classes. Life will become tolerable to many who have heretofore been dragging out simply a miserable existence. The name of Lloyd George will be a house-hold word in the homes of the poor and many a humble, sincere prayer will express thanksgiving and praise for one who was instrumental in the providences of the Lord in removing conditions that were well nigh unbearable.

The writer was for a long period at a loss to account for the strenuous opposition of the Conservative party to this altogether desirable act. A fuller understanding of its varied and salient features has furnished a solution of the perplexing problem. The answer is simple. Put into operation, the Insurance act will reflect credit and prestige upon Lloyd George and the Liberal party that will go far to keep them in power, deservedly so, for many years to come.

May the Lord God Almighty bless you, Mr. George, for the able, consistent and intelligent fight you have made for this important measure which is calculated in the very nature of things to revolutionize industrial conditions throughout Great Britain. May you be blessed with continued mental vigor and bodily strength. May you be prospered in temporal things. May peace and happiness ever be found in your habitation. May the righteous desires of your heart be granted.

I know that you will be blessed of the Lord.

I am, with great respect,

Yours truly,

RUDGER CLAWSON
President of the European Mission
of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints

I don’t pretend to be entirely innocent of political intent in posting this account – I support the Affordable Care Act, and I deplore the unconscionable antics of a few in the U.S. Congress who have brought about the (apparently ended) government shutdown in their tawdry fight to nullify that Act. I realize that this post will anger some and give glee to others. Still, I trust Keepa’s readers to keep their comments civil and within reach of reality in whatever claims they make for and against current political policy. Blessings on you if you incorporate an historical element in your comments, and speak of religious themes instead of purely (impurely?) political ones.



7 Comments »

  1. I’m not certain whether this will qualify as a religious or a political comment, but I’ll throw in some history. In January 1912, when Elder Clawson wrote this letter, H. H. Asquith, a Liberal, was the Prime Minister. He was succeeded by Lloyd George, another Liberal, although during the war years both Asquith’s and Lloyd George’s governments were coalition governments, and under Lloyd George tilted decidedly toward the Conservatives.

    After that the Liberals disappeared, more or less. Not another Liberal ever became the King’s first minister, and the Liberals’ numbers in Parliament dwindled to the point of insignificance.

    Which suggests that political prophesying is a risky endeavor.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 17, 2013 @ 7:43 am

  2. We tend to view these types of laws/programs as underminding the ideals of individual responsiblites. But when things happen beyond our control, there has to be some kind of safety net. In the BoM we read of about 200 yrs of peace and no poor, you wonder how they did that. The new ACA is not perfect but what we have now is not anywhere close to being good for everyone. I like the bold move of the 1911 Act, good for them. My belief, as a side note, is that the government has been deemed responsible for the general welfare of its people. Certainly basic medical care is part of all that. Just saying….

    Comment by Mex — October 17, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  3. I seem to recall you pointing this letter out on Facebook, so I had seen it once before, thanks to you. I’ve struggled so far with what to say that won’t come across as partisan, and I am failing, so only two comments right now:

    One, I also am glad for the Affordable Care Act, even flawed in some aspects, because it does reach out to those who have been outside the safety net.Indeed, “life will become tolerable for many.”

    Second, I’d love to see or hear Joseph F. Smith’s response to Clawson’s letter!

    Comment by kevinf — October 17, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  4. Me, too, kevinf, but I don’t have access!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 17, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  5. It is very interesting to read about past times and past politics. I am amazed at the stridency with which some church leaders opposed Social Security and other New Deal reforms in the United States — and yet now everyone accepts it. Could a member in the 1930′s support Social Security as a public policy matter without being apostate in his or her church community?

    Comment by ji — October 17, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

  6. ji, while some Church leaders were very vocal about some New Deal programs, I’m not aware of any opposition to Social Security once it was established — it was viewed as an insurance program, not as a dole. I’m also not aware of any action being taken against anyone for political policy positions during that era. We did overturn Prohibition, after all, and something like that doesn’t happen without public discussion.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 17, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

  7. This was right at the time that the wave of workers’ compensation laws were first coming into being here in the individual U.S. states (first originating from Germany in the 1880′s). This type of safety net for workers is an obvious corollary — and one we’ve collectively enjoyed for nigh unto 100 years here in the U.S. — to the Affordable Care Act.

    Mostly, I’m impressed that Elder Clawson took the time to put pen to paper in order to commend the Exchequer. I think there’s something for me to learn from this example of highlighting and seeking after things “virtuous, lovely, or of good report.”

    Comment by David Y. — October 17, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

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