Labour History Review

Interpreting Welfare Reform: Continuity and Change within the Social Democratic Tradition

Labour History Review (2005), 70, (3), 275–295.


This article deploys Mark Bevir's concept of decentred tradition to interpret the emergence of New Labour's welfare reforms, and critical responses to them, in terms of continuity and change within the social democratic tradition. It does so by exploring the historical interaction of beliefs, traditions, and dilemmas to make three main claims about the ways Gordon Brown and Roy Hattersley each constructed beliefs about welfare provision. First, individuals necessarily develop their beliefs against the background of an inherited tradition. Brown and Hattersley developed their beliefs against the background of the social democratic tradition. Second, individuals are agents who can revise their beliefs and thus modify traditions. Brown revised his beliefs about welfare provision and thus modified the social democratic tradition. Hattersley neither revised his beliefs nor modified this historical tradition. Third, individuals revise their beliefs in response to dilemmas, where a dilemma constitutes an authoritative understanding that challenges existing beliefs. Brown revised his beliefs about welfare in response to the dilemma of New Right discourse of dependency and underclass. Hattersley rejected this discourse and so consolidated his existing beliefs.

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Author details

O'Brien, David