Statecraft and incremental change: Explaining the success of pension reforms in the United Kingdom

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How were comprehensive pension reforms in the UK successfully developed, enacted and implemented from 2002 to 2015, despite changes in government composition and the financial crisis? Why were they not subject to policy conflict, electoral competition and policy reversal? Drawing on actor-centred historical institutionalism and thirty interviews with key actors, we demonstrate the critical role played by a limited number of politicians and policy entrepreneurs and their ideas and agency. Institutional continuity with the Beveridgean policy legacies of the pension system and the United Kingdom’s `growth regime’ enabled a coalition space to open up for policy agreement. between the government and Opposition parties, and for partisan electoral competition over the reforms to be `bracketed’. The incremental and interlocking nature of the reform package reduced interest group opposition and enabled a centralisation of decision-making power. A long-term timeframe for reform cemented the formation of an elite coalition and buttressed political control. Cross-party support for the reform package, coupled with judicious phasing of the implementation of auto-enrolment and fiscal reforms, enabled it to withstand the impact of the financial crisis and the austerity that followed it, and to minimise opposition among the critical electoral constituency of older voters. The dominance of the reform process by political actors and policy entrepreneurs in the UK nonetheless came at a price, as institutional continuity and incrementalism foreclosed alternative reforms. We demonstrate the importance of political statecraft and policy entrepreneurship in the UK pensions’ reform process, but within boundaries set by its institutional context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)649-667
Number of pages19
JournalBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations
Issue number4
Early online date13 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2022


  • Beveridgean welfare state
  • Turner Pensions Commission
  • United Kingdom
  • elite coalition
  • historical institutionalism
  • pension reforms
  • political agency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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