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Clear Blue Water?

The Conservative Party and the Welfare State since 1940 


Robert M. Page 


Bristol: Policy Press, 2015

Hardback. x+201 p. ISBN 978-1847429865. £65.25


Reviewed by Emma Bell

Université de Savoie Mont-Blanc



In this scholarly work, Robert Page sets out to provide a thorough account of the Conservative Party’s approach to the welfare state since 1940, in contradistinction to the multiple accounts which concentrate primarily on the role of consensus politics in shaping social policy throughout the period. Page seeks to contextualise the Conservative approach in light of the party mindset and of other policies, notably economic and industrial policy. His aim is to provide a neutral and dispassionate account of Conservative social policy through a chronological account of different policy initiatives and an analysis of the key actors involved, from individual ministers to think tanks and policy groups. In doing so, he helps to foster a deeper understanding of the issues at stake and succeeds in dispelling some widely-held myths about Conservative policy in this area, such as the idea that changes to the welfare state under the Thatcher governments were minor in scale. 

Although Page adopts a chronological policy account, he distinguishes four different Conservative approaches to the welfare state throughout the post-war period: a ‘One Nation’ approach, identified with Churchill, Eden and Macmillan; a ‘modern technocratic approach’ under Heath; a ‘neoliberal Conservative’ approach during the Thatcher years; and a ‘progressive neo-liberal Conservative approach’ since 1997 but most particularly under the leadership of David Cameron from 2005. Regardless of these distinctions, as Page states himself, there are common threads running across the different periods. One theme that emerges particularly clearly is that of pragmatism, notably the need to tailor social policy to meet the needs of electoral strategy: Page describes how the Conservatives were keen to assuage public fears that they would fail to implement extensive social reform along the lines of the Beveridge Report after the war, and how radicalism was tempered during the Thatcher years by concerns about public attachment to the key institutions of the welfare state, not least the NHS. Pragmatism was also fostered by the enduring need to make cost savings, whether in the 1960s or in the present day. Whilst ideology remained important, notably the Conservative belief in individualism, it seems that it was frequently cast aside in the interests of pragmatism.

Nonetheless, ideology did play a role, often leading to conflict between Conservatives hailing from different ideological traditions, irrespective of what the prevailing approach to welfare policy was at the time. Whilst internal party conflict over policy direction was perhaps most salient in Thatcher’s first term, with the distinction between the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’, Page notes that such conflict was evident throughout the period. In the 1940s, for example, there were tensions between ‘progressives’ such as Butler, Hogg and Macmillan, who accepted the need for an enlarged role for the State, and traditionalists such as party chairman Ralph Assheton, who expressed great concern about such a doctrinal turn.

Whilst the typology adopted by Page is useful in terms of helping the reader get to grips with the broad thrust of policy at different periods, the labels used would have benefited from more detailed definition. In particular, the term ‘neoliberal Conservatism’ is never fully defined. Whilst Page associates it with a belief in home ownership, individualism and efficiency, he does not make it clear what really distinguishes it from earlier periods of Conservatism. Indeed, a belief in home ownership and the creation of a ‘property-owning democracy’ can be traced back to Eden and Heath, as the author himself points out. What exactly does Page mean by ‘neoliberalism’? How exactly does it differ from other strands of Conservative thought? Can it be understood primarily as an approach to economic policy or does it also have a cultural dimension? What is ‘Conservative’ neoliberalism as opposed to the neoliberalism of ‘New Labour’? Indeed, whilst it is understandable that detailed references are not made to Labour’s welfare state policy, this not being the key focus of the book, it is hard for the author to highlight where the ‘clear blue water’ really lies between Britain’s mainstream parties in the absence of more detailed analysis of Opposition policy.

Furthermore, the distinction between ‘neoliberal Conservatism’ and ‘progressive neoliberal Conservatism’ is somewhat problematic as it tends to overemphasise the concrete differences between these two approaches. Whilst differences undoubtedly exist – notably contemporary Conservatives’ acceptance of a relative definition of poverty and their willingness to accord more rights to homosexuals – it might be argued that the similarities are just as salient. Rhetorically, there may have been a slight change in discourse as more ‘compassionate’ approaches were favoured. Yet, just as under Thatcher, welfare reforms were framed by the discourse of responsibility and liberation from the shackles of state dependency. The language of workers versus ‘shirkers’ first employed in the 1970 Conservative election manifesto was redeployed. The Social Justice Policy Group’s discourse concerning the ‘cycle of disadvantage’ was redolent of Keith Joseph’s work on the ‘cycle of poverty’. The causes of poverty were certainly considered to be similar: family breakdown and economic dependency in particular. The structural causes of poverty were to be downplayed at all costs and welfare claimants continued to be stigmatised. In practice, it is hard to see what was genuinely ‘progressive’ about welfare policy under Cameron whereby all welfare claimants, with the exception of pensioners, and users of public health and education services have been subject to austerity measures. Perhaps the one genuinely distinctive feature of Conservative policy in this recent period has been the massive extension in the role of the private sector in the delivery of welfare, yet this is a reform that gets only the most cursory of mentions. In the final analysis, Page’s dispassionate approach proves to be something of a hindrance. In failing to answer the question he poses at the end of the book with regard to ‘how far the progressive neo-liberal Conservatives differ from their older sibling’, he is left unable to justify his own typology.


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