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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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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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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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This chapter describes the transformation of the UK state in the post-war period. Transformation describes changes including: the size of the UK state, its level of intervention in the market, and reforms to its policy-making and delivery functions. The chapter relates state transformation to two reference points: (1) the post-war consensus story describing state ownership and intervention; (2) the neoliberal story describing a trend towards state retrenchment and privatisation in favour of market forces and individual responsibility. It examines how parties make a difference in government. In a few cases, a new party has become associated with a major change in the long-term direction of travel. In most, a new party slows or accelerates the same trend. The chapter identifies the impact of devolution. Devolution as a policy has accentuated UK state transformation. However, devolved governments often opt-out of the UK government policies associated with state transformation.

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This chapter shows how state transformation informs Westminster and complex government stories of policy making. It examines the UK policy style during transformation: were policy changes negotiated in policy communities or imposed from the top-down? It relates transformation to theories of policy change: did change occur incrementally or radically? Was it part of a coherent plan?

It explores debates on the consequences: did UK governments produce more effective government or a less coherent state? It shows how UK transformation is part of a wider international trend, linked to globalisation and the influence of international actors

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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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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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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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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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