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Shrinking the State ? Change and Continuity in Public Service Reform

Emma Bell
p. 49-67


It is often asserted that the transition from New Labour to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010 marked a decisive break in terms of public service policy. That break was one characterised in particular by the apparent switch from profligacy to austerity with regard to spending on public services with a concomitant shrinking of the State. This paper seeks to demonstrate that this narrative masks considerable continuity between the two periods, indeed over the past thirty-five years. It begins by demonstrating that the change of direction in economic policy, though significant, was not as unambiguous as it may appear. It then notes that, in any case, this change did not lead to any diminution of state power. On the contrary, as the private sector has come to play an ever-greater role in the delivery of public services, the British State has further extended its already significant role in legitimising and facilitating the marketisation of public services, thus promoting corporate welfare. Meanwhile, the demos have found themselves disempowered, regardless of the discourse of localism and the promised decentralisation of power from the centre.

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Ce document sera publié en ligne en texte intégral en juin 2018.


From profligacy to austerity?
Austerity as hegemony
Power to the People : A devolution revolution?
Big market, small state ?

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Much has been made of the potential of the Conservative Party’s public spending plans over the past six years to reduce the size of the State. David Cameron explicitly committed to ‘building a leaner, more efficient state’, claiming that ‘we need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently’. The former Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement to shrink total government spending to little over 35.2 per cent of GDP before the end of the decade was hailed by the Daily Telegraph as ‘big news’, leading to a shrinking of the State back to pre-welfare state levels. For the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis, Osborne’s plans represented ‘a shrinking of the UK state that is unprecedented’. The public services, with the exception of ring-fenced services such as education and healthcare, were to bear the brunt of government spending cuts, with unprotected government departments seeing their budgets cut by over 20 % on average between 2010 and 2015. Yet, far from negatively a...

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Référence papier

Emma Bell, « Shrinking the State ? Change and Continuity in Public Service Reform », Observatoire de la société britannique, 19 | 2017, 49-67.

Référence électronique

Emma Bell, « Shrinking the State ? Change and Continuity in Public Service Reform », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 19 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2018, consulté le 20 mars 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1899

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Emma Bell

Professeur de civilisation britannique à l'Université de Savoie Mont Blanc

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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