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Towards a new welfare state or reverting to type? some major trends in British social policy since the early 1980s

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In the early 1980s the "welfare state crisis" was a point of reference common to many European countries with advanced public social policy arrangements. In most of them the scope of expansion of social expenditure had already been reigned in after the first oil price shock in the mid-1970s. But it was the impact of the second oil price crisis, with low or negative economic growth rates and another steep rise in unemployment in the early 1980s which provided considerable ammunition for critics of the welfare state in many European countries and which triggered off the crisis debate. The latter was particularly pronounced in countries with centre-right and neo-liberal governments at the time and probably most outspoken in the UK. From the start of her first period in office Margaret Thatcher was explicit about her ambition to "roll back the frontiers of the state" and to give much more room for individual and private forms of social protection. In her first election manifesto in 1979 the welfare state was singled out as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to economic and social difficulties which Britain faced at the time. In short, it seems entirely appropriate to take the early 1980s as a starting point and to focus on the UK as the country in which there was arguably more pressure on traditional social policy structures than anywhere else in Europe.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2003

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