Cross-cultural differences in governance and policies for learning disability services are of interest. This article focuses on two UK government policy documents issued in 1971 and 2001. Their context, creation, principles, proposals and proposed implementation are examined, and lessons are drawn for an international audience as to the changing nature of services in the UK. The analysis reveals a move from a detailed and prescriptive policy in 1971, largely defined by professionals and bureaucrats, and aimed primarily at families with a disabled member, to statements of broad principles in 2001, devised in consultation with and aimed at a range of groups, including disabled people themselves. The article acknowledges progress in individual rights and choices for people with learning disabilities, but raises doubts about how significant this is in achieving a qualitative improvement in their lives. Some of these doubts relate to the governance process itself.