Last year’s British Social Attitudes report saw Britain at a political crossroads.
A year on, events suggest we’re now a nation in trouble. Three years after the global
banking crisis started we’re scarcely out of recession. Turbulent financial markets,
falling growth forecasts, public spending cuts and rising unemployment all loom
large. Playing to an often sceptical and disengaged audience, political leaders across
the spectrum trumpet fairness. They do so in the context of impassioned debate
on welfare, education and housing, all areas which are facing spending cuts to tackle
the deficit. Only the National Health Service remains avowedly protected. Yet despite
satisfaction with the NHS riding high, as we reported last year, it too is controversially
on the brink of yet more organisational change.
Amid all this, in August 2011, the rules changed on the streets of several major English
cities, which experienced riots of a scale and intensity not seen for 30 years. The
shocking spectacle of masked rioters in running battles with police, upturned vehicles,
burning buildings and mass looting prompted a bout of national soul-searching.
Declarations by some that the riots were the work of a “feral underclass”, resulted
in a clamour of voices in every direction. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke –
as he had in opposition – of a need to “mend” and “strengthen” British society.
Every year since 1983, British Social Attitudes has given the public a voice so as to
shed light on how British society looks and feels. By providing an understanding of
what people really think about the issues that affect their daily lives and how their
views are changing, it has created an invaluable resource for policy makers and
commentators. The findings described in this report are based on interviews carried
out a few months after the 2010 election that ended 13 years of Labour government
and resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration. And so this year’s
report sits on a cusp: reflecting people’s experiences of Britain under Labour, but also
informed by their hopes, fears and expectations of life under the Coalition. No one was
predicting riots at the time of the survey, but the findings still provide valuable clues
as to some of the key questions now confronting our society. How do people respond
to prolonged economic uncertainty? Do people think we’re generally cohesive and
optimistic? Or are we beset by the kind of fragmentation and pessimistic inclinations
that the Prime Minister has memorably decried as “can’t-do sogginess”?
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