Key findings / Conclusions

Conclusions

So what's the verdict? How has the British public mood shifted in response to the most sustained recession since the 1930s? Are we seeing a renewed faith in a social democratic state, or have people lost confidence in the merits of a strong state? Is there an increasing sense of social solidarity, or are we heading in a more socially divisive and individualistic direction?

There is certainly some evidence of continued faith in the role of the state. There areĀ  initial signs of increased concern about the impact of public expenditure cuts on public services such as health and education. But these appear to be no more than a cyclical reaction to the prospect of reductions in public expenditure rather than evidence of a new public mood. It is also clear that people continue to believe in a universal and publicly-funded NHS.

undefinedBut the more striking message is a transformation in Britain's attitudes towards the creation of a more equal society, an aspiration that in part might be delivered through welfare benefits. Neither redistribution in general nor welfare benefits in particular are as popular as they once were. This is by no means a recent change and certainly predates the recession. It primarily reflects a change in public attitudes during Labour's years in power between 1997 and 2010.

These findings point towards an increased sense of 'them and us', with the most vulnerable in the labour market being viewed far less sympathetically than before, despite Britain's current economic difficulties. This sense of division is also clear in our Immigration chapter, which finds increasing concern about immigration in general, and about its economic and cultural impacts in particular. Although increased opposition to immigration predates the recession, austerity may well help explain the fact that concern about its impacts has grown the most among those who are themselves the least well-qualified or skilled. Finally, we also see evidence of geographic division, with an increasing sense of resentment in England about what is seen to be the 'unfair' share of public spending received by Scotland, something that may have been exacerbated by austerity.

Our results have clear implications for the coalition government. With less than half the Parliamentary term having passed, the number of people wanting to see more public spending is already on the increase and satisfaction with the NHS has fallen for the first time in a decade.

In contrast, there is much evidence of support for the Coalition's pledges to control welfare spending and immigration. With Ed Miliband and Labour also pledging action in both areas, these will clearly become battlegrounds in any upcoming general election, and all parties will be keen to ensure they are in tune with public concern on these key issues.

If austerity will loom large in people's memories of these times, so surely will the London 2012 Olympics. Britain's 65 medals came from across the four nations; from those educated in private schools and state schools; from those with every privilege to those brought up with multiple disadvantages. Some believe that the true legacy of the Games will be to bring Britain together once more. But for now, the 29th British Social Attitudes report tells a rather different story.