The increases and mutations by which political institutions grow are always misrepresented if chopped into neat periods and bisected by ends, beginnings and turning points. But though history is a continuous process, if it is to be understood at all then some violence must be done to its complex reality by representing it in terms of emphases, directions and prevailing characteristics. In the case of British government, some such new emphasis, and some such turning point, may be identified after 1880. After that date government did more of what it had done previously in the way of regulation and control, and it did what previously it had not done, or done very little, in the way of direct intervention and the provision of services. There was no sharp departure from previous practice, and little was done that had not in some degree been done before. But the number of state employees began to increase significantly in the 1880s whilst state expenditure as a percentage of national expenditure began to rise in the 1890s. The accelerations and changes in direction were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions to give the state a different role. But what was conscious was the reflection of contemporaries and the belief of many of them that something had changed, and that government now had a novel and distinctive character. Writing in 1881, the Liberal politician John Morley drew attention to ‘the rather amazing result that in the country where Socialism has been less talked about than in any other country in Europe, its principles have been most extensively applied’. What Morley meant by ‘Socialism’ was simply the assumption by the state of extended powers for the regulation of life and work in the interests of the welfare of its citizens. He wrote
We have today a complete, minute, and voluminous code for the protection of labour; buildings must be kept pure of effluvia;
dangerous machinery must be fenced; children and young persons must not clean it while in motion; their hours are not only limited but fixed; continuous employment must not exceed a given number of hours, varying with the trade, but prescribed by law in given cases; a statutable number of holidays is imposed; the children must go to school, and the employer must every week have a certificate to that effect; if an accident happens, notice must be sent to the proper authorities; special provisions are made for bakehouses, for lace-making, for collieries, and for a whole schedule of other special callings; for the due enforcement and vigilant supervision of this immense host of minute prescriptions, there is an immense host of inspectors, certifying surgeons, and other authorities, whose business it is ‘to speed and post o’er land and ocean’ in restless guardianship of every kind of labour, from that of the woman who plaits straw at her cottage door, to the miner who descends into the bowels of the earth, and the seaman who conveys the fruits and materials of universal industry to and fro between the remotest parts of the globe.