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In every year since 1983, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) has asked a large sample of people about a range of social issues. By regularly repeating some questions, this provides valuable evidence about how attitudes are changing over time. Following the Brexit vote, the BSA was one of the sources which showed how the key dividing line in British politics had shifted from the economic left/right to a much more cultural divide. Although the divide was often described as “remain”/”leave” it reflected a much more complex set of issues, well beyond views on the EU.
The 2021 survey report has just been published. It tells us a lot about how attitudes are, and are not, changing. It examines attitudes on two dimensions: economic left/right, and socially liberal/authoritarian.
It is not good news for the authoritarian, small state, government which we now have.
Tax and spend
Slightly over half of all people are in favour of raising taxation to spend more on health, education, and social benefits. Although Labour supporters are more likely to take this view, almost half of Conservatives agree. The proportion supporting lower taxes has never reached 10%. The proportion wanting higher taxes to pay for public services is now close to the level it was in the decade before Labour’s 1997 electoral landslide.
Most people think that Britain is an unequal country. Two thirds agree that ordinary working people do not get a fair share of resources, a rise of 10% since 2019, and half agree that the government should act to redistribute.
There has been a substantial shift in attitudes to welfare. Before 2010, a majority agreed that people on the dole were “fiddling” in some way. That number has now fallen to a quarter, and half now disagree. However, when asked whether people would be more likely to “stand on their own feet” if benefits were reduced, people are evenly divided.
In 2011, in a referendum on replacing “first past the post” voting with a more proportional (Additional Vote) system, 27% voted for reform. Since then support for reform has risen steadily, and it is now the majority view (51%). The change is the result of rising support among Liberal Democrats (from 46% to 69%) and Labour supporters (from 27% to 61%). Labour Remainers feel this much more strongly than Labour Leavers. Conservatives continue to oppose.
Environmental concerns have risen dramatically over the last decade. The proportion who are “very concerned about the environment” has risen from 22% in 2010 to 40% now, and a fifth of people believe this is the most important issue facing Britain. It is now one of the four topics at the top of most peoples’ lists, alongside healthcare, education and the economy.
Nearly two thirds of people (60%) believe that climate change is mostly due to human activity (only 6% disagree), and 64% see this as extremely or very dangerous. More than half say they are willing to pay more through taxes, prices or lifestyle changes to counter change. The most common suggestions for coping with this are heavy fines for polluting industries and education for consumers.
The survey was conducted during the second year of the Covid pandemic. Three quarters of people still support the principles that the NHS should be free at the point of need and 54% think it should continue to be funded through taxation.
However, those who were dissatisfied with the NHS were rather less likely to agree. There has been a dramatic decline in satisfaction with the NHS, from 53% in 2000 to 36% in 2021. This is the lowest since 1997 (also after a long period of Conservative government), and this is the first time that more people are dissatisfied than satisfied. The biggest concern was with the time taken to get appointments (hospital and GP), which has risen from 57% to 65% since 2019, and about social care (50%).
In the past, the BSA has found people in the North to be more economically left wing and more in favour of a strong welfare system. This has changed, and there are now surprisingly few regional differences between North and South. The proportions of people with left-wing economic values is slightly higher in the North, but the difference is small (61% to 56%). The proportion agreeing that the state should provide a welfare safety net for all is almost identical (37%/35%).
The striking outlier is London. The proportions of socially liberal and economically left-wing people are much higher there than in the rest of the country. This remains true even after adjusting for the fact that London’s population is younger and better educated. Londoners are twice as likely to be socially liberal (supporting the right to individual freedom over conformity to common rules and practices) than people in the North.
In 2019, the BSA found that the divide between Leavers and Remainers had become a more significant political divide than social class or traditional parties. They found that the core divide was between authoritarians and social liberals, disputes which have come to be called “culture wars”. The divide remains deep, and the survey looks especially at issues of “Britishness”, cultural diversity and immigration. However, the proportion of people who are classified as “authoritarian” has been declining steadily.
Although most people describe themselves as strongly British, “leavers” are now twice as likely to describe themselves in this way, and to believe that being born here is important to being “truly British”. But attitudes to “Britishness” have changed over time. In 1995, half of all people believed that being born in Britain was very important to being British, and that “Britain is better than most countries”. Now only 17% believe the former, and 34% believe the latter.
Asked whether “equal opportunities for Black and Asian people have not gone far enough”, the proportion agreeing has risen from 25% in 2000 to 45% in 2021. But the divide between Remainers (60% agree) and Leavers (23% agree) is very sharp.
These findings are not good news for the Truss government. Since 2011 the proportion of people classified as “authoritarian” (closely associated with Conservative voting) has declined steadily from 63% to 38%, while the proportion classified as “liberal” has risen from 5% to 21%.
Most people remain in favour of increased taxes to pay for public services. They believe that we remain an unequal society, and are increasingly in favour of redistribution and a strong welfare state. They have become much more concerned about the environment, and for the first time, a majority are in favour of reforming our electoral system. They are increasingly worried about the state of the NHS, but continue to support its principles. The cultural divides opened by Brexit are still significant even if they are no longer expressed in relation to the EU.
We shall see over the coming months whether a radical right-wing government can change people’s views on these issues. But so far the jury is out.