Key findings / A nation united or divided?

A nation united or divided?

Earlier we wondered whether, in times of austerity, we would find evidence of growing unity, a feeling that 'we are all in it together', or instead whether there might be an increasing sense that in times of trouble people should look after their own and not expect others to help them out. On the evidence from our Welfare chapter presented earlier, it is clear that Britain entered recession far less supportive of welfare provision than it once was. This change of mood, which began under a Labour government and which recession has done little to reverse, appears to represent a fundamental long-term change that leaves Britain looking like a more individualistic society, one in which those on benefits are judged more harshly than in the past and seen as less deserving of public assistance.

undefinedOur Immigration chapter also helps shed light on the question of social unity or division. As an island nation with a global imperial legacy, the question of who we allow to join 'us' has a unique resonance. The chapter examines how views about migration have changed, covering a 15-year period which saw the largest inflow of migrants in British history, as well as recession and growing concern about integration among specific migrant groups. Overall, it finds an increasing desire among the public to see less immigration - in 1995, 39 per cent thought that the "number of immigrants to Britain" should reduce "a lot"; by 2011 this had risen to 51 per cent, with a further 24 per cent thinking the number should reduce "a little". It is also clear that the cultural and economic impacts of migrants on Britain are increasingly seen as negative. In 2011, 52 per cent thought "migrants coming to Britain from other countries" were "generally bad for Britain's economy", up from 43 per cent in 2002. There was an even bigger increase in the proportion thinking that Britain's cultural life" is "generally undermined" by immigration, with 47 per cent taking this view in 2011, up from 33 per cent in 2002.

What impact has austerity had on public opinion in this area? While our data do not allow us to pinpoint precisely when these attitude shifts took place, our Immigration chapter points to one clue about the possible impact of recession on public opinion. The attitudes of different social groups towards the economic impact of immigration have become increasingly polarised over the last decade. While all groups have become more concerned, the trend has been most pronounced among those without qualifications and among less-skilled workers. While 40 per cent of people in professional occupations assess the economic impact of immigration negatively (up from 36 per cent in 2002), the same is true of 62 per cent of those in routine manual work (up from 51 per cent). A similar pattern is found for income: 39 per cent of people in the top income quartile make a negative assessment of the economic impact of immigration (unchanged since 2002), compared with 61 per cent of those in the bottom quartile (up from 47 per cent in 2002). So while economically comfortable and culturally more cosmopolitan groups show little change in their assessments of the economic impacts of immigration, economically and socially insecure groups have become dramatically more hostile.

Like our findings on welfare, this suggests a clear sense of 'them and us', in this case perhaps reflecting the dual impact of increased immigration and recession. The chapter also finds that some migrants are seen to be more easily integrated into 'us' than others - Britons are not opposed to migration across the board, but strongly favour migrants they perceive as socially beneficial and easy to integrate (for example, there is less opposition towards highly qualified professionals than there is towards unskilled labourers). 

undefinedOur Immigration chapter focuses on the boundaries of the United Kingdom and those who cross them. But of course there are other boundaries within the British Isles that are relevant to this theme of unity and division. As our Scottish independence chapter shows, the advent of devolution in Scotland and Wales in 1999 has seen the share of public spending received by these parts of the UK come under closer scrutiny. Spending per head in Scotland and Wales has long been higher than in England, a position that, it is argued by defenders of the status quo, recognises the greater needs and lower population densities of these countries (but see Holtham, 2010; McLean et al., 2008). The devolved bodies are free to determine how they will spend much of this money, a situation that has resulted in the free provision in one or more of the devolved territories of services which still have to be paid for by many people in England (university tuition and prescriptions, for example). There are clear signs that this is beginning to generate resentment in England. Before 2007 only around a quarter of people in England felt that Scotland received "more than its fair share of public spending", but in 2007 this rose to a third (32 per cent) and since 2008 has consistently been around the 40 per cent mark, standing at 44 per cent now. We cannot be sure this change has been exacerbated by the recession, but it clearly echoes earlier findings that austerity has been accompanied by decreasing support for government activity that redistributes resources from one set of citizens to another.