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Embracing the nanny state
The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows increasing public support for intervention by government in society and the economy
The British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey is the gold standard measure of public opinion. Every year the National Centre for Social Research tracks changes in people's social, political and moral attitudes, and last week the latest report was launched to a packed and slightly sweaty room in the Houses of Parliament.
There were several themes to this year’s report, including that Britons are becoming ever more socially liberal (albeit with a few exceptions). However, one of the most interesting findings was what Sam Freedman described as “particularly big jumps in the public mood on the role of government in solving social problems and on poverty/welfare”. The FT quoted Sir John Curtice as saying that “both Conservative and Labour voters have changed their minds about the role of government and about taxation and spending over the years”.
Here are some stats, by way of illustration, from the chapter on the role of government:
A record 68% think government should definitely “be responsible for keeping prices under control” (compared to 59% in 1985, 31% in 2006, and 29% in 2016); another 26% think government should “probably” be responsible for this
A record 53% think government should definitely “be responsible for reducing income differences between the rich and poor” (compared to 45% in 1985, 25% in 2006, and 31% in 2016); another 28% think government should “probably” be responsible for this
55% think that both taxes and spending by government should be increased (up from 31% in 2010, and compared to 36% who think they should stay the same and 8% who think they should be reduced)
There are significant differences of opinion between supporters of different political parties on some of these questions. However, the BSA report finds that there have been particularly big changes of attitude among Conservative voters, especially over the last seven or so years, with support among this group for a bigger role for the state larger than it has ever been in the past.
The researchers suggest that these attitudes are cyclical and ‘thermostatic’ (reacting to changes in the economy, in public services and in the role of government), and that people of all political persuasions are sensitive to these changes. For example, the continuing high level of support for increasing taxes and spending is likely to be linked to high (and increasing) levels of public dissatisfaction with the state of the NHS and other public services.
There are some interesting generational differences (with Sir John Curtice arguing that age is a bigger dividing line than class), as well as changes in attitudes to poverty and welfare, on both of which Sam Freedman has some excellent analysis. And the chapter on social class is fascinating, challenging the lazy assumption that Britain has become a classless society by showing that attitudes towards class are becoming more divided, with large majorities believing that class affects opportunities in Britain, many more people identifying as working class than as middle class, and increasing numbers saying that it is difficult to move between different social classes.
Overall, these findings help to explain why we found earlier this year that a large majority of Britons think that the government should fund a wide-ranging social contract, with guaranteed provision of a range of services including social care, early years education and care, public transport and housing. And they also provide some useful context for a recurring finding in our recent polling that the attitudes of Conservative voters are less different to those of average respondents than we might think.