The emergence of the idea of ‘the welfare state’ in British political discourse

David Garland

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article traces the emergence of the term welfare state in British political discourse and describes competing efforts to define its meaning. It presents a genealogy of the concept's emergence and its subsequent integration into various political scripts, tracing the struggles that sought to name, define, and narrate what welfare state would be taken to mean. It shows that the concept emerged only after the core programmes to which it referred had already been enacted into law and that the referents and meaning of the concept were never generally agreed upon – not even at the moment of its formation in the late 1940s. During the 1950s, the welfare state concept was being framed in three distinct senses: (a) the welfare state as a set of social security programmes; (b) the welfare state as a socio-economic system; and (c) the welfare state as a new kind of state. Each of these usages was deployed by opposing political actors – though with different scope, meaning, value, and implication. The article argues that the welfare state concept did not operate as a representation reflecting a separate, already-constituted reality. Rather, the use of the concept in the political and economic arguments of the period – and in later disputes about the nature of the Labour government's post-war achievements – was always thoroughly rhetorical and constitutive, its users aiming to shape the transformations and outcomes that they claimed merely to describe.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)132-157
    Number of pages26
    JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Feb 2022


    • genealogy
    • governmentality
    • political discourse
    • post-war Britain
    • welfare state

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • History and Philosophy of Science


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