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We are currently witnessing considerable changes in the ways in which welfare services are provided in England. These changes have major implications for voluntary action in welfare provision. The boundaries between the state and the voluntary sector are being renegotiated, to the extent that some called the 2010s ‘a revolutionary moment’. The same term was used to describe the establishment of comprehensive welfare services in the 1940s. At these two transformational moments, fundamental questions have been raised about who is responsible for the provision of welfare services.

Our research, which forms the basis of a new book published by Policy Press, has explored these debates, through comparing and contrasting the ways in which the general public, politicians, and voluntary sector organisations talk about the role of voluntary action in welfare. We found that during the 1940s, the expansion of state-provided services was often contrasted with earlier policy failures, raising questions about the future role of voluntary action. However, rather than this leading to a diminished role for voluntary action, there was recognition of the extent of welfare needs and the state’s inability to meet these on its own. We suggest this led to a pragmatic partnership between the state and voluntary action. During the 2010s the dominant narrative was of state failure: the failure of the state to meet needs, and to meet its responsibilities. This was accompanied by a separation of the state and voluntary action in policy terms, but less so in terms of service delivery, which contributed to an antagonistic collaboration between voluntary action and the state. While similar sets of questions were being asked in the 1940s and the 2010s about the mixed economy of welfare, fundamentally different conclusions and relationships were reached in these two timeframes.

We conclude with reflections on the implications for discussions about potential welfare futures, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which, we suggest, led – initially at least – to a new partnership of necessity.


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