During the Second World War, the British government published a series of reports on the need for changes in welfare provision which helped to fuel a widespread desire for social reconstruction in the postwar period. Although there were undoubtedly many important disagreements over different aspects of social policy, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed what many people regarded as an unprecedented degree of inter-party agreement on the broad principles of welfare provision. This led the American political scientist, Hugh Heclo, to argue that during this period ‘the welfare state acquired an ideological life of its own’, in which ‘Britain’s welfare state became infused with a series of vague but deeply and widely held beliefs: as part of a common society, we do have shared needs; people — all people — are entitled to a decent life; privilege and greed must not be allowed to emasculate citizens’ social rights; government can be a force for good in securing these ends’.1 However, during the 1970s this ‘welfare state consensus’ was assailed by critics on both the left and the right, and this contributed to the election of a new Conservative government in 1979 which was much more overtly hostile to the principles of state welfare provision than any of its postwar predecessors. The Conservatives remained in power for the next 18 years, and when Labour returned to office in 1997 it seemed determined to rid itself of its historical reputation as the party of ‘tax and spend’.
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