Why didn't Blair revive the left's holy cow?

Rethinking Social Policy. First edition - Social Divisions. First edition - Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy in Britain. First edition - British Social Policy since 1945. Second edition - From a Welfare State to a Welfare Society. First edition - Understanding Social Policy. Sixth edition
March 2, 2001

Explaining the seismic shift in the ideological and substantive underpinnings of what we all used to know as "the welfare state" is a hard task. This has been especially true for traditional left-leaning academics in the arena of social policy. Their realisation that the powerful Thatcherite demolition of so many taken-for-granted sacred welfare cows has not been followed by a new Labour reinstatement of the ancien régime of welfare has led to much soul searching. Of course, other deep and apparently unstoppable currents have conspired to create novel and problematic juxtapositions of social practices, social problems and social ideas. In this context, many traditional welfare-state solutions to long-standing but increasingly high-profile social problems -crime and poverty for example -seem to have become politically untenable, even politically unthinkable. So how do we explain what has happened? And where do we go from here?

In various ways and with varying degrees of success, these six books seek to provide an analysis of what has happened to the welfare state as a whole, or its component parts, or those aspects of social life that have been targeted by years, even decades, of welfare-state policies.

Attempting a grand analysis of the ebb and flow of ideas in the context of significant structural changes, John Rodger's book provides an explicitly sociological take on what he sees as the transformation of the welfare state to a welfare society.

Rodger is not so much concerned with the everyday administrative politics of social policy as with the effects of strategic conflicts over the role of state welfare and the nature of civil society. These conflicts, he argues, can be seen echoing in vigorous continuing debates between modernist, postmodernist and anti-modernist perspectives on the role of the state. His book is peppered with ideas extrapolated from theoretical analyses of the western urban condition -some of which, such as the "post-emotional society" and "amoral familism" -may not enjoy everyday currency among many social policy analysts. However, such theoretical excursions end slightly disappointingly on more familiar ground. Rodger focuses on the limits to the welfare state and on the increasingly well-documented pressures on more vulnerable groups to build their own social capital through local "social entrepreneurship" and mutual support. This book is big on ideas for a sociologically informed readership, but rather thinner on policy detail.

The collection edited by Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz and John Clarke offers a radical series of perspectives on the dynamics of social policy. The contributors seek to understand the "social relations of welfare". Social policy, in their terms, both constitutes and is constituted by patterns of unequal social relations, which are historically situated and constantly changing. Thus, the editors state that the focus of their enterprise is to examine and rethink "the social" in social policy. This collection of 22 essays, by a generally impressive range of authors, is wide ranging in its attempt to capture the paradoxes in the changing formation and operation of social policies, for example in relation to gender, care, disability, crime, violence, education and employment.

However, the collection is paradoxical. The majority of the essays are conceptually sophisticated, often with broad sociological resonances and theoretical reference points. But despite the valiant and initially convincing introduction, it is not clear that the grand editorial narrative provides sufficient glue to hold together such a diversity of issues and ideas. It is more an intellectual resource to be dipped into for interesting conceptual commentaries on particular issues than a text to be read in sequence without further contextualisation or commentary. It clearly demonstrates its origins as a course reader for a new Open University course with the same title as the book.

In some respects, the collection edited by Geoff Payne attempts an even more ambitious task, with its contributors documenting and re-examining major social divisions: the social bedrock, for good or ill, to which so much academic and political attention is addressed. However, despite, or perhaps because of, the editor's precise and rather laboured attempt to position the book almost too exactly in terms of approach, audience and content, it has a rather old-fashioned feel.

Payne states that the book is an intermediate not an introductory text, although its content and style seem to indicate the latter market. Whereas Lewis et al 's sometimes wayward collection generates a frisson of excitement in challenging received wisdom, the majority of Payne's collection is focused on a more sober review of "the facts" of social divisions in the context of changing and developing social policies. Nonetheless, such a sober account and analysis are not to be despised. Yet the book as a whole appears slightly uncomfortably caught between what Payne describes as its emphasis on "the big three" social divisions (class, gender and ethnicity), and its integration of this analysis with accounts of other social divisions -national identity, age and old age, childhood, sexuality, disability, health and community -based on different conceptual frameworks. While Payne has tried hard to produce a rationale and focus for this collection, which links traditional and more recent sociological concerns about social divisions, the strengths of the book lie more in the individual overviews of social divisions such as those of David Mason on ethnicity, John Scott on class, Mark Hyde on disability and the chapters by Sue Scott and Stevi Jackson on children and on sexuality.

Michael Hill's book, the sixth edition of a book originally published in 1980, is "an introduction to the study of social policy". Readers will probably be familiar with its format. After covering the nature of social policy, its history and the mechanisms by which policies are made and implemented, it then has chapters on social security, the health service, personal social services, education, employment policy, housing and a concluding overview. This edition "has involved a substantial revision to take into account the impact of the election in 1997". In fact, Hill's general argument is that much in the area of social policy that new Labour claims to have innovatively pursued is not new at all, but has to be placed in the context of previous trends and developments. Seamlessly knitting together the new Labour years with those of its predecessors, the book emphasises the continuity and historically embedded nature of social policy developments and changes, and particularly what might be described as the Westminster politics of social policy. Slightly waspishly, however, one might note that in a book with such a long history itself, it may become increasingly difficult to argue for any radical break in social policy. The book can become a prisoner of its own history. Yet it is more than just another text in a long tradition of books on the administrative aspects of social policy, and it will have a solid and comfortable feel for those who do not want to stray too far into the more theoretical territory of Rodger's book or that edited by Lewis et al .

Howard Glennester's book has a similar appeal to that of Hill as a basic text in social policy. In some ways, it could almost be its twin. The second edition of a successful 1995 publication, it has been revised for the same reason as Hill's book. Glennester's is far more historically contextualised, particularly in documenting the origins of post-second world war social policy; and indeed is somewhat stronger on the exact detail of the twists and turns of policy formation over the years.

His chapters are largely sequenced according to political chronology, being built round key postwar electoral transitions: 1945, 1951, 1964, 1976, 1979, (1988) and 1997. Glennester sticks closely to the exposition of the almost day-to-day political contests and consequences of social policy. To a considerable degree, being chronologically structured, the revision of Glennester's book has been an easier task than that for Hill -a chapter on "New Labour: new century" being the main addition. However, he does not wish to tangle with the bolder (and maybe more contentious) theoretical arguments advanced by the sociologically based analysts about the current and future state of social welfare.

The collection edited by Margaret Harris and Colin Rochester is clearly far more targeted at one element of social policy than the other texts reviewed here. It is based on a 20th anniversary conference at the London School of Economics to celebrate the publication of the Wolfenden report on the future of voluntary organisations in 1978, and the founding of the first university programme on voluntary organisations at Brunel University in the same year (later transferred to the LSE). The book usefully complements the relative neglect of such organisations in the Hill and Glennester texts, and provides 15 detailed essays on the trials and tribulations of the voluntary sector, especially in the context of the relatively new-found but very double-edged embrace of the sector by recent governments.

Overall, this collection of texts illustrates the diversity and complexity of what might now be considered social policy and welfare and what it is for -given the major shift of gear politically, socially and economically in the past 20 years. This change has opened wider debates from many disciplinary and conceptual points of the compass. In a sense, these debates are complementary. The books by Hill and Glennester describe the detailed political mechanisms and processes through which largely state-based social policies operate. The book by Rodger and the collection of Lewis et al seek to explain the overarching ideas about welfare, within which, and through which, our society and its more vulnerable members have come to be constituted. For Payne and his contributors, the baseline issue is how changing patterns of social policies affect social divisions, while Harris and Rochester's contributors make a particular plea for the virtues of voluntary organisations in this context.

The next few years will indicate whether the continuing reconfiguration of the idea and practice of welfare will produce a further withdrawal of the state from major (especially financial) intervention on welfare issues. Such a process could leave many of those previously targeted by social policies to construct their own social-welfare systems, or to rely on voluntary organisations, which might amount to the same thing.

Ian Robinson is reader in sociology, Brunel University.

Rethinking Social Policy. First edition

Editor - Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz and John Clarke
ISBN - 0 7619 6754 0 and 6755 9
Publisher - Sage / Open University
Price - £49.00 and £16.99
Pages - 358

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