The welfare state in Britain since 1945 (2nd edition) By Rodney Lowe Macmillan 357 pages £45 hardback/£14.99 paperback

What should you expect from a new text on the history of the welfare state?

One possible answer is that it should include relevant evidence and coherent argument, marshalled to support some interesting general observations.

Another, more academic, answer is that it should be clear about its own assumptions and judgement criteria.

Fortunately, the second edition of The Welfare State in Britain Since 1945 does very well on both these scores. We find helpful chapters on the main theoretical perspectives used to understand welfare policy-making and welfare itself, followed by elegant 20-odd page summaries of policies and practices in the NHS, education, housing and other areas between the 1940s and the mid-1970s.

Each of the chapters on a policy area is short but, taken together, some general themes - not least the brilliance of the early visions and the messiness and frustrations of the subsequent reality - become very clear.

And Lowe also reminds us of the dirigiste policies of governments in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly interesting in the light of the current government's centralising tendencies.

We do well to remember that attempts at top-down control fell into disrepute, and Lowe spells out why.

Here, too, are any number of reminders of the bleak continuities in policy and practice: for example, problems noted at the time of Beveridge in areas such as housing and social security remained unresolved by the 1970s, and the secondary education sector was as much a messy patchwork in 1976 as in 1946.

The attention paid to identifying clear criteria for judging services leads to the observation - which rings true today - that overall the NHS is a real success story, while at the same time has tended to fail particular groups, such as mentally ill people and, to some extent, women, too.

Lowe is an academic and so understandably tends towards clear presentation of evidence rather than a glossy style, which this reviewer is inclined to applaud.

Despite its sometimes antiseptic style, the book is well-written and the general reader will reap ample dividends if willing to work at - or perhaps even ignore - the occasional piece of academic jargon.

And if there is a gripe, it is that the mid-1970s is an awkward cut off date for analysis in some areas.

In the NHS, for example, we find the 1974 reorganisation but little of the Labour government's run-in with the medical profession of 1975-77 over NHS pay beds and regulation of the private hospital sector, which seems to have coloured some current Labour thinking.

But there are plenty of other echoes of the past that can inform the present: for example, this reviewer came away forcefully reminded of the deep-seated nature of the difficulties faced by present- day proponents of 'joined-up thinking'.

The gripe, however, must remain in context - this is an excellent text.