The welfare state is elusive. It has repeatedly defied political attempts to contain it. Only once since 1945 has welfare expenditure fallen in real terms - under Labour in 1977/78. Under the Conservatives since 1979 it has risen relentlessly, most markedly in election years. It has also defied effective academic analysis. Indeed, in their common critique of centralised bureaucracy and the need to empower the consumers of welfare, critics on both the political right and left have appeared to adopt strikingly similar positions.
Part of the problem is one of definition. What precisely is a welfare state? After a lifetime of study, Richard Titmuss concluded that it was an "indefinable abstraction" but, given Beveridge's identification of "five giants on the road to reconstruction", it would seem that any definition has to embrace the relevant policy areas of social security, health, employment, housing and education.
Many, however, would baulk at the inclusion of the last three because, through the full utilisation of a well-trained and mobile workforce, they actively contribute to wealth creation. This does not conform to the definition of "welfare", at least in its American usage, which concentrates more on the relief of need.
Others would champion a wider definition including the personal social services (unified in 1970), fiscal and occupational welfare. Changes in taxation, as the 1980s has shown, can have as great an impact on individual welfare as any conventional welfare service. Subsidised occupational welfare - "private enterprise in the public interest" - was also a prime objective of postwar Conservatism under R. A. Butler.
Yet others would expand the definition still further to include legislation affecting private morality. As Howard Glennerster has recently argued in his excellent British Social Policy since 1945 individual wellbeing is more likely to have been affected by legislation on such issues as abortion and divorce than by changes to the structure of pensions or the National Health Service. This raises the challenging thought that it was the 1960s, and not the 1980s, that genuinely saw a "rolling back of the state" from interference in individuals' lives.
Defining welfare policy is, therefore, one of the problems facing David Gladstone in the compilation of this introductory text. Others include the need to avoid stupefying dullness in the description of the slow evolution of detailed, highly complex legislation; and the need to resist the temptation either covertly to adopt one ideological position or, alternatively, to gloss over the competing values which at different times have shaped policy.
It is in the clear identification of, and debate over, such values that much of the excitement of teaching and researching welfare policy lies. It is also in the small print of legislation that, as Peter Baldwin has recently demonstrated, significant ideological differences within and between welfare states can ultimately be detected.
Gladstone's response to these challenges is ambitious. He has brought together the work of 15 experts, eight associated with the new school of policy studies at the University of Bristol. To celebrate 50 years of peace, eight chapters provide a retrospective examination of major policies, while looking forward to the millennium a further four cover the issues of competing ideologies, empowerment and service quality.
When the results are good, as in Alan Deacon's chapter on social security, they are very good. Each chapter provides a valuable introduction to the latest research. The extended coverage, introduced by Gladstone himself, of the personal social services - for too long the cinderella service for both government and academic commentators - is also to be warmly welcomed.
However, not all the problems identified above have been resolved. In scope , there is little on fiscal or occupational welfare. The past is examined variously in its own right and as a mere prelude to the present. There is also on occasion a lack of theoretical explicitness which prevents the respective advantages and disadvantages of policy changes, especially since 1987, from being analysed adequately. Some chapters thus tend to chronicle information whilst others deny the validity, let alone the vitality, of competing ideological positions.
In short a strict framework has not been imposed on the contributors to provide a full, and fully compatible treatment of their subject. This was the achievement of John Hills in The State of Welfare which remains the model for collaboration in the analysis of modern welfare policy.
British Social Welfare, at least in this edition, may not therefore become the "key text" for which its publishers are hoping. It will, however, provide a valuable addition to those books to which students can be confidently directed for guidance on particular aspects of policy.
Rodney Lowe is an ESRC senior research fellow, University of Bristol.
British Social Welfare: Past, Present and Future
Editor - David Gladstone
ISBN - 1 85728 198 5
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 368