At the end of the nineteenth century, Belgium was the archetypal ‘modern nation’, in much the same way that the Netherlands was to be a century later. In 1910 the French diplomat Henri Charriaut wrote of Belgium as a ‘social laboratory’ in which all the crucial issues affecting the various great nations of Europe were apparent and inspired ‘a perpetual fever of reform’ (La Belgique moderne, p. 1). In the same year a lengthier book, based on four years of research and entitled Land & Labour: Lessons from Belgium, was published in London. The author was Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, a New Liberal intent on improving the life and dignity of working people by such means as temperance, social insurance, co-operative societies, small-holdings and allotments. All these were characteristic of Belgium, although Rowntree did lament that Belgian temperance societies, ‘only seek to check the consumption of spirits. They neither preach nor demand from their members abstinence from wine and beer.’ (p. 417). One unintended effect of the success of the Belgian temperance movement’s campaigns against spirits was in stimulating Belgian brewers to experiment with varieties of strong beer, to the extent that Belgian beer is now recognized by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity. Rowntree was particularly taken with the idea of cheap workers’ season tickets on a dense light rail network, so that countryfolk working in industry need not crowd into urban tenements. Nor was he the only English reformer captivated by the Belgian model. According to Catherine Webb, ‘the seed for the future establishment of maternity centres in England’ was brought back from Co-operative Women’s Guild tours of Brussels and Ghent (The Woman with the Basket, 1927, p. 168).
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