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This chapter uses recent crises and dramatic experiences of UK government to reflect on more general and enduring aspects of UK politics and policy. Policy analysis helps to identify the overwhelming number of problems facing a government at any one time, and how ministers define and prioritise problems. Policy studies show how UK ministers draw – with modest success – on the Westminster story to portray strong, decisive government acting in the national interest. Their experiences exemplify the limits associated with the complex government story, including the need to inherit problems and policies, and respond to multiple crises, while having a limited understanding of events and control over outcomes. Critical policy analysis helps to show how policy makers, the media and public pay disproportionate and infrequent attention to inequality.

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In 2016, the ‘Brexit’ campaign drew on the Westminster story to describe ‘taking back control’ of UK policy and policy making. In 2020, the UK left the EU. The complex government story suggests that UK ministers have limited knowledge and control over policy processes. The Brexit process exposed those limitations, and changed only one of many drivers of fragmented and multi-level policy making. Brexit created confusion about the new responsibilities of devolved governments, and amplified demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Three approaches highlight key perspectives on these issues. Policy analysis identifies how to address constitutional issues. For example, what case could people make to leave or remain in the EU? Policy studies identifies how governments manage constitutional change. What was the consequence of Brexit on policy and policy making? Critical policy analysis identifies and challenges inequitable processes and outcomes. Who won and lost from Brexit?

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This chapter shows that studies of COVID-19 help to understand policy-making crises and the social and economic dilemmas associated with public health. COVID-19 prompted rapid and radical UK policy change. State intervention, to limit behaviour and compensate for economic inactivity, seemed inconceivable before 2020. Yet, critics of the UK government identify a too-slow and ineffective response. Three approaches highlight key perspectives on COVID-19 policy and policy making. Policy analysis identifies how to address a profound existential crisis in public health. How could UK and devolved governments define and seek to solve this problem? Policy studies identifies how governments address the problems and policy processes that they do not fully understand or control. How did governments respond? Critical policy analysis identifies and challenges inequitable processes and outcomes. Whose knowledge mattered? Who won and lost from government action and inaction?

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The 2008 global economic crisis had a profound impact on the UK government, which borrowed extensively to support banks and deal with the cost of recession. The 2010 Coalition government sought to address the UK’s deficit and debt problems by reducing public spending and reforming public services. This emphasis on ‘austerity’ reinforced a longer-term trend towards neoliberalism, emphasising state retrenchment in favour of individual and communal activity.

Three approaches highlight key perspectives on these issues. Policy analysis identifies how to address economic crises. For example, what is the size, urgency and cause of the problem? What solutions should governments adopt? Policy studies identifies how governments address the impacts of economic crisis. Which policies have governments favoured, and what has been their impact? Critical policy analysis identifies and challenges inequitable processes and outcomes. We highlight choices to reduce social security spending, with a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, women and minoritised populations

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Climate change is an existential crisis requiring global and domestic cooperation to secure rapid and radical policy change. There is a large gap between requirements and reality. Environmental issues receive fleeting attention, reforms have not produced the required outcomes, and other policies undermine their progress. Three approaches highlight key perspectives on these issues. Policy analysis identifies how to address environmental crises. For example, what policy instruments are technically and politically feasible? Policy studies identifies how governments address the impacts of climate change. Which policies have governments favoured, and what has been their impact? How coherent is their approach to climate change, energy, transport and food policies? Critical policy analysis identifies and challenges inequitable processes and outcomes. Does policy address climate justice as well as climate change?

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This chapter compares different stories of UK policy making.

The Westminster story describes the concentration of power in the hands of few people at the heart of central government.

It remains an important reference point even when it provides an inaccurate account of policy making. The complex government story describes the limits to central government control. It is more accurate but less easy to understand and connect to UK political norms. The chapter explores what happens when policy makers draw on both stories for different reasons, even when they seem to contradict each other.

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The UK Labour government supported the US ‘war on terror’ following terrorist attacks on the US on 9 September 2001 (9/11). The UK was a key contributor to US-led wars in Afghanistan from 2001 and Iraq from 2003. The Iraq War prompted high public protest in the UK, without changing UK policy. These conflicts provide a useful way to examine UK foreign policies. Three approaches highlight key perspectives. Foreign policy analysis examines how to understand international conflict. The Westminster and complex government stories help to explain the central control of policy choices but not outcomes. Critical policy analysis helps identify who wins and loses

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This chapter describes the importance of policy and policy making to the study of UK politics. It introduces three essential ways to research it, via policy analysis, policy studies and critical policy analysis. It warns against equating UK politics with the Westminster model story of power concentrated in the hands of government ministers.

It introduces an alternative complex government story, in which ministers can only influence a small proportion of their responsibilities. It shows how to use these insights to analyse, explain and evaluate contemporary politics and policy making in the UK.

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This chapter describes three perspectives on policy and policy making. First, policy analysis is research for policy: defining problems, seeking solutions, identifying trade-offs, estimating their effects, and making recommendations. Second, policy studies is research of policy and policy making: what policy is, who makes it, how policy makers understand problems, and limits to their influence. Third, critical policy analysis identifies: who is involved, who decides, who benefits, and how to challenge inequitable processes and outcomes. The chapter shows how all three perspectives are essential to our understanding of policy making.

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Over the past decade, the UK has experienced major policy and policy making change. This text examines this shifting political and policy landscape while also highlighting the features of UK politics that have endured.

Written by Paul Cairney and Sean Kippin, leading voices in UK public policy and politics, the book combines a focus on policy making theories and concepts with the exploration of key themes and events in UK politics including:

  • developing social policy in a post-pandemic world;

  • governing post-Brexit;

  • the centrality of environmental policy.

The book equips students with a robust and up-to-date understanding of UK public policy and enables them to locate this within a broader theoretical framework.

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