Curse or Cure? Why Was the Enactment of Britain's 1909 Trade Boards Act so Controversial?



The Trade Boards Act of 1909 was introduced in Britain to counteract sweating. Associated with long hours, insanitary work conditions and inadequate pay — with the accent falling on low wages — sweating probably afflicted some 30 per cent of Edwardian Britain's labour force. Trade boards supporters as diverse as Winston Churchill and R. H. Tawney heralded the legislation as marking a significant break in economic and social thought. Opponents declared that the enactment of the legislation would be ruinous for Britain. The future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and his wife denounced trade boards as pallid reformism and campaigned for the licensing of home workshops. On the other hand, proponents of a subsistence minimum wage, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were disappointed that the legislation did not go further. Initially, it encompassed less than a quarter of a million workers. The rates set were not based on the cost of living but on what the individual trade could bear. On their own, trade boards were insufficient to eradicate Britain's long and historical tradition of being a low-paying economy. Trade boards (and their successors, wages councils) were trapped in their collective laissez-faire origins. However, despite its sanctioning of a statutory national minimum wage in 1998, the British state is still far from being interventionist in the labour market. If Britain is to break with the past, she must also implement a comprehensive framework of minimum rights. Otherwise, the principle of collective laissez-faire will still remain triumphant over the Webbs' alternative conception of a comprehensive labour code.