Department of Political Science


The Transformation of British Welfare Provision: Political Beliefs and Motives

1 September 2020

Since the 1980s the UK’s benefits system has been radically reformed, and public opinion has shifted strongly against it.


Existing explanations for this focus on long-term economic and social changes, yet other countries facing the same trends have not changed their policies or opinions nearly as much. My book will explain why, combining historical accounts and elite interviews with quantitative analysis of speeches, newspaper articles and surveys. I contend that reforms did not initially represent the ‘will of the people’. Instead, the rhetoric that accompanied them –pitting benefits users against taxpayers – caused the decline in popular support for welfare. 

Over the past thirty years the UK’s welfare system has been radically reformed, faster and more extensively than in any other developed country. Reforms began in the 1980s, and were significantly accelerated and deepened under Labour governments from 1997-2010. From 2010, more far-reaching changes have been introduced. These include large cuts in entitlements, greater means-testing, more stringent conditions for receiving benefits, and sanctions for failing to meet those conditions. Until very recently the reforms proved popular with the public. Support for the benefits system fell dramatically, much more than in other comparable countries. 

From a political science perspective, these changes present a number of puzzles. The existing literature outlines social, political and economic trends that reduce popular support for welfare and make cuts and reforms more likely. These include globalisation, structural unemployment, budgetary pressure from ageing populations, increasing economic conservatism in electorates, and the declining importance of working-class voters. But they cannot explain why the UK introduced much deeper cuts and more extensive reforms than other countries facing similar trends. Nor can they explain why benefits provision became so much less popular with the British public even as support for spending in other areas such as the NHS remained high, and why support fell much more than in other similar countries. Moreover, many important reforms were initiated by Labour, a centre-left party which first introduced much of the UK’s welfare state and for a long time defended it against cuts. 

Focusing on policies that that provide relief from unemployment, poverty and disability, I will use the fellowship to write a book addressing these puzzles. 

  • Grant title: The Transformation of British Welfare Provision: Political Beliefs and Motives
  • Start date: 01/09/20
  • End date: 31/08/21
  • Sponsor: Leverhulme Trust
  • Principal investigator: Dr Tom O'Grady