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Are Brits more progressive than we think?
A recent survey has shown that Britons have some of the most positive attitudes to immigration in the world. Do we underestimate the progressiveness of the public?
Last week, the Policy Institute at King’s College London published new UK data from the World Values Survey. It showed that two in three Britons think that we should either let anyone come to the UK who wants to, or let them come as long as there are jobs available. This is the highest proportion of any of the countries surveyed. Fewer than one in three Brits think that we should put strict immigration limits in place - the lowest proportion of any of the countries included in the survey.
The findings also reveal huge changes in public attitudes over a short space of time. Fourteen years ago, two thirds of Britons thought that when jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants. Today fewer than one third of Brits think this. And the changes aren’t just due to younger people having more liberal attitudes, because people in older generations have also changed their minds.
The researchers conclude that the changes are partly due to people seeing that immigrants contribute much more to our economy and society than they take out, and suggest that the government is misreading public opinion on immigration.
There are many other areas where public attitudes have shifted enormously over recent years. Race and ethnicity is a good example. Over the last thirty years Britain has moved from a country that was 95% white to a country where one in five people identify as belonging to other ethnic groups. This huge shift has been accompanied by people becoming more open-minded in their attitudes about race and more concerned about inequalities than they were 15 years ago, according to Ipsos MORI research in 2020. Only 7% of Britons now agree that “to be truly British you have to be White”.
At an event last week related to the publication of a report by Bright Blue and British Future on an agenda for action on race equality, Sunder Katwala of British Future made the case that we need to build support for ambitious policies to tackle racism and racial inequality. The report documents how, while progress has been made on racial inequalities in recent decades, unacceptable gaps remain in the life chances and everyday experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds (see also the IFS Deaton Review report on race and ethnicity).
Katwala argued that, while political debate on race in the UK is increasingly polarised, there is a ‘latent public appetite’ for constructive action: “young people expect fairness yesterday, so we have to have a plan for fairness tomorrow”. And this appetite crosses generational barriers (the shouty voices on the fringes don’t represent majority views, just as the culture wars are less divisive than the culture warriors would have you believe). There is plenty of common ground on issues and solutions, even if people may disagree on the language used to describe them. The Sewell report was divisive, but the government’s response (the Inclusive Britain strategy) was more, well, inclusive.
If public attitudes on many issues are changing, what about attitudes within some of the country’s dominant institutions? Are they keeping pace?
Let’s ignore for now the obvious candidate - Parliament - and look a few miles further east, to the City of London. In his Observer column this weekend, Will Hutton (also chair of our editorial board) argues that the City has discovered a new sense of purpose - investing in British business. A visitor from Mars might wonder why this wasn’t already fairly high up on the list of priorities, but as Hutton outlines, the City has historically been more interested in overseas speculation than in supporting domestic enterprise.
Today, however, he finds City bosses thinking very differently, spurred on partly by self-interest (the impact of Brexit on its global position, etc) and partly by alarm at the catastrophic impact of economic decline on “poverty, wages and life chances”. As a report by the The Purposeful Company (co-chaired by Hutton) outlines, the big insurance companies are proposing a £50bn private sector national wealth fund to invest in British business, accompanied by a similarly sized public wealth fund - an idea that has already been put forward by Labour.
[Side note: it’s good to see that key figures in the financial sector are more focused than they used to be on driving both growth and fairness in the UK economy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that fairness is thriving with the City itself, however. A recent article by Louise Ashley at Queen Mary University of London outlines how, for all of the fine talk about meritocracy and equal opportunity, elitism in the City is both endemic and widely accepted. Sample quote: “We all know that people with the right accent and mannerisms … sound much more believable”.]
We should find out later today whether this idea forms part of Labour’s new economic strategy, following Keir Starmer’s announcement of his five national missions last Thursday. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear more details of some of the five missions, including how Labour plans to ‘break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage’, a mission that will focus on childcare and education. Reforms are badly needed in both sectors, and a long-term ‘mission-driven’ approach has much to recommend it, but will Labour also take aim at structural barriers to opportunity, such as wealth inequality and a broken housing market?
Speaking of national missions and Labour, former PM Tony Blair joined forces with his erstwhile adversary William Hague last week to launch a report calling for A New National Purpose (innovation). They argue that the British state is no longer fit for purpose and that there must be a cross-party consensus to radically change politics, putting technology at the heart of the NHS, schools and other public services. The report contains more than 40 recommendations on how to use technology to transform the economy and society.
Their broad argument that the government needs to play a much more proactive and long-term (i.e. mission-driven) role on technology has to be right, regardless of the pros and cons of each of their specific policy recommendations. To quote Blair on Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday: “Unless politics starts to ask the right questions about you harness this technology, to mitigate its risks but embrace its opportunities, then we risk… politics taking decades to catch up with it.“ This echoes James Plunkett in his book End State, arguing that “capitalism is morphing once again into a new creature: this time a pixelated, digital dragon that is awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure.”
But there does seem to be something missing from the Blair/Hague policy prescription, which takes us back to our starting point: public attitudes, and public engagement more broadly. There is an urgent need for a big national conversation about who benefits from the transformative changes that technology will continue to make to our society and economy. Techno-utopians and techno-pessimists can surely agree on this. You don’t have to believe that AI and automation will replace all jobs to realise that these technologies will have a huge impact on the already unequal distribution of wealth and resources. But we’re not yet having a public discussion about these issues. We’d better get on with it, for the sake of our democracy as well as our society and economy.
We’ll be continuing to look at public attitudes to a range of issues from a fairness perspective over the coming months. This week we’ll be commissioning some polling on attitudes to fair pay for people working in the early years (childcare) sector, which we’re planning to publish in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.