So what do 30 years of the British Social Attitudes survey tell us about how and why modern Britain differs from the Britain we first surveyed in 1983? We conclude by summarising some of the key themes of our 30th Report.
Live and let live
Compared with 30 years ago, British people are far more likely to take a laissez-faire view of one another's relationships and lifestyles. Far fewer people now feel that marriage must come before sex, let alone children, or indeed that someone's sexual orientation is anybody's business but their own. When we began the survey back in 1983, it was impossible to imagine a Conservative Prime Minister advocating gay marriage; now public opinion suggests that widespread acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption is very much here to stay.
Generational trends make it likely that this shift towards a more 'live and let live' approach to other people's personal lives will continue, although it is important to recognise that events can upset even seemingly long-term and deep-rooted shifts in opinion; one such example is the impact that the discovery of HIV AIDS had on attitudes to homosexuality in the late 1980s.
It is also true that, despite growing tolerance over time, a considerable minority of the public remain very uncomfortable with less 'traditional' relationships. Among the political parties, this poses a particular challenge for the Conservative Party in trying to balance their new social liberalism with the fact that their supporters are currently among the least liberal on these matters.
Losing faith in key institutions
The last 30 years have seen a number of important institutions fall from grace very publicly, and the impact of this is clear in our findings. The banking sector, the press and politicians are all now judged far more critically than they were in the early 1980s, and there is a clear sense that people have lost faith in some of Britain's most important institutions. This certainly applies to politicians and the political process. Although Britain has never had that much trust in government or those who serve within it, now only one in five (18 per cent) trust governments to put the nation's needs above those of a political party.
However, there is little evidence of a steady and general decline in trust. Public opinion, at least partly, reflects the behaviour of the people and institutions in question - whether they be politicians, journalists or bankers. So their future public standing lies to a large extent within their own hands. Indeed, the royal family provides an excellent example of how an embattled institution can rise in the public's opinion: although the monarchy is still seen as less important now than it was in 1983, as many as 45 per cent now see its continuation as "very important", up from a low of 27 per cent in 2006.
Our changing cultural attachments
The sense of attachment that people have to different British institutions has changed markedly over the last three decades. In the early 1980s most people readily identified with a religion and with a political party. Now, only half (52 per cent) define themselves as religious (the change almost entirely accounted for by a decline in identification with the Church of England) and, though three-quarters (76 per cent) still identify - if pushed - with a political party, only 31 per cent would describe their support as "very" or "fairly strong". In both cases, the decline is long-term and likely to continue as older generations, who are most likely to identify with a religion or a political party, gradually die out.
True, some social identities persist. In particular, Britain retains an intriguing attachment to a working class identity, with far more thinking of themselves in this way than would objectively be defined as working class nowadays, given the current profile of the job market. However, the pull that subjective or even objective class exerts on how a person thinks or feels about the world is weaker now than it was in the 1980s.
The tension between individual and state responsibility
The last three decades have seen a dramatic decline in support for welfare benefits aimed at disadvantaged groups, particularly the unemployed. Britain is more inclined than it was in the 1980s to feel that people should stand on their own two feet economically, and is less likely to favour increased spending on welfare benefits. A majority still think it is mainly up to government, rather than an individual and his or her family, to provide the unemployed with a decent standard of living, but the proportion who think this has fallen dramatically. Although there have been some signs recently of a shift towards a more sympathetic view of welfare benefits and their recipients, likely to be driven by austerity, it remains the case that Britain now has a far less collectivist view of welfare than was the case in the 1980s. This largely happened after New Labour came to power in 1997, suggesting the source of the change lay in the character of that government rather than in deeper rooted social change.
It remains to be seen what impact the coalition government's welfare reform agenda will have on public attitudes, and whether the small recent upturn in sympathy we have seen marks the beginning of a trend. Looking ahead to the next election, it is clear that marked differences still exist between the views on welfare of those supporting different political parties, despite some convergence over the last thirty years. Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters remain markedly more likely than Conservative supporters to want to see higher spending on welfare, and are less likely to express concern about benefit levels being too high. So the challenge for the Liberal Democrats will be to reconcile their role within the coalition government with the fact that their supporters' views lie some way to the left of those supporting their coalition partners. Meanwhile the challenge for Labour will be to decide whether it wishes to carve out its own distinctive position on welfare, and if so, how it can best tackle the imprint that New Labour appears to have left on how the public think about this area.
All this by no means implies that Britain is turning away from the state altogether. Only six per cent would like to see a reduction in taxes and public spending on health, education and social benefits, and the public remain strongly wedded to the founding principle of the NHS. Indeed, a near unanimous 97 per cent think it is the government's responsibility to provide health care for the sick and a similar proportion think the same about government's responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the elderly.
Britain in 2043
These findings give us valuable clues about the way Britain might think and feel in another 30 years' time. But, in truth, Britain's changing social attitudes are in no way the product of inevitable social trends. Instead they are often the result of how the public's identities, values and preferences interact with events, or with the words and deeds of those in positions of power and influence. How that interaction will play out in the next 30 years will depend both on the choices made by this group and on longer term social and demographic change.
We look forward to findings from the British Social Attitudes survey over the next 30 years, giving the public a voice by providing essential independent and robust evidence about their experiences, attitudes and values.
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- The difference between the proportions of the population identified as belonging to a religion by the 2011 Census and British Social Attitudes can be partly explained by question wording: the Census asks respondents "What is your religion?" - implying that the respondent has one - while the British Social Attitudes survey asks "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?" The difference may also be due to the response options offered; with the Census listing the major world religions, and British Social Attitudes listing specific denominations; respondents answering the former would be most likely to see this as a question concerned with 'cultural classification' rather than religion (Voas and Bruce, 2004). Finally, the context of the questions is significant, with the Census question following one on ethnicity, arguably causing 'contamination' of responses (ibid.).
- The objective figures represent the proportions in one of the Registrar General's socio-economic groups 1-6.
- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).
- This 1981 figure comes from the World Values Survey as reported in Hall (1999).
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