Spending and welfare / What should the role of government be?

What should the role of government be?

We begin by considering the public's views on levels of government taxation and spending and what it thinks the government's responsibilities in specific areas of social protection and the economy should be. If the British public is less collectivist than it has been in the past, we might expect to see a long-term decline in support for government taxation and spending, and a restriction in the activities regarded as governmental responsibilities. 

Government taxation and spending

First, we examine responses to a long-standing question about the role of government, framed in terms of the extent of taxation and spending. Since 1983, we have asked respondents to choose one of three courses of action for the government:

Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits

Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now

Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits

While we might expect a public which has become less collectivist to be less supportive of government taxation and spending than it has been in the past, Figure 2.1 in fact reveals that responses to this question in 2012 are very similar to when the British Social Attitudes survey was first conducted in 1983. In both years roughly a third of the public express support for increased taxes and higher public spending (32 and 34 per cent respectively); a little over half want the levels of tax and spend kept where they are (53 and 54 per cent respectively); and only a small minority (nine and six per cent respectively) want both taxes and public spending cut. 

However, there have been some notable shifts in attitudes during the past three decades. While support for increased taxes and spending rose in the 1980s and 1990s, the growth in expenditure during the period of the New Labour government, especially during its second and third terms of office (2001-2010) appeared to satisfy the desire of at least a third of the public to invest more in public services. This trend was interpreted in previous British Social Attitudes reports as a reaction to increased public spending during Labour's period in power (Curtice, 2010). In contrast, the public's appetite for a radical scaling back of taxes and spending has been consistently low since the early 1980s. There is very little public support for significant cuts to key public services and social protection in return for lower taxes. While the majority of the public appear supportive of maintaining or increasing levels of government taxation and spending, it appears that fluctuations in this support are cyclical and tend to occur in response to adjustments in government activity. 


Government responsibilities and priorities for spending

As well as being influenced by levels of taxation and spending, the public's view of the extent to which government should tax and spend may be underpinned by people's perceptions of what the government's role should be in public life. To examine views on this matter and whether they have changed over time, we turn to a set of questions asked a number of times on the British Social Attitudes survey since 1985. Specifically, respondents are asked:

On the whole, do you think it should or should not be the government's responsibility to…

… reduce income differences between the rich and the poor 

… provide a job for everyone who wants one

… provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed 

… provide decent housing for those who can't afford it 

… provide health care for the sick 

… provide a decent standard of living for the old 

… keep prices under control

[Definitely should be, probably should be, probably should not be, definitely should not be]

The data, presented in Table 2.1, indicate that public perceptions of government responsibility in relation to different areas have not evolved in a consistent way over the past three decades, suggesting that there has not been a universal shift in views regarding the nature and extent of the government's responsibilities. We see long-standing and near universal public support for the proposition that it is the government's responsibility to provide health care for the sick and a decent standard of living for older people - with almost all respondents, across the lifetime of the survey, thinking these should be government responsibilities. These attitudes underpin consistently high levels of public commitment to the National Health Service (see the Health chapter) and the basic State Pension (Clery, 2012 and Table 2.1). However, views on other areas of government responsibility have varied over time. 

undefinedThe public feels strongly that the government should be responsible for keeping prices under control. A higher proportion, almost nine in ten, view this as a government responsibility compared with those who believe that it should be the responsibility of government to provide employment for everyone who wants to work (slightly less than two-thirds express this view). Support for both propositions has fluctuated over time, both falling to a low point in 2006 and subsequently increasing, in 2012, to levels last seen in the 1990s. While the proportion thinking the government should be responsible for reducing differences in income between the rich and the poor is identical to that recorded in 1985, almost seven in ten, agreement with this stance has also fluctuated over time, though not in a consistent direction. However, when it comes to the provision of social security to particular groups in the population, support for government responsibility has declined. This is particularly marked in relation to the unemployed. In the 1980s, a large majority of people (more than eight in ten) believed it was the job of government to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 1996, support for this view had fallen to less than three-quarters and, by 2006, to just half. This proportion increased somewhat to 59 per cent in 2012 - and we shall explore whether this is indicative of broader trends later in this chapter - but it is still markedly lower than that recorded three decades ago. At the same time, we see a less marked decline in support for the proposition that government has a responsibility to provide decent housing for people who cannot afford it, from nine in ten in 1990 to slightly more than eight in ten now. These trends suggest that the public is less collectivist in relation to the needs of certain disadvantaged groups than it has been in the past - although this shift in views does not have appear to have affected attitudes to wider government responsibilities. 


undefinedWe might expect to see these trends reflected in public priorities for extra government spending. Since its inception, the British Social Attitudes survey has asked respondents to identify their first and second choices for extra government spending. In Table 2.2 we see that, over the last three decades, a majority of people consistently choose health spending as one of their top two priorities within the overall envelope of public spending (71 per cent in 2012) - reflecting the near universal support for the government's role in providing health care for the sick, noted earlier. Education is the second most popular choice, selected by just over six in ten in 2012, with other functions attracting much lower levels of support. While spending on education and health has been a public policy priority since the 1980s, there have been interesting fluctuations in the priority given to other, less popular, areas of government spending. An effect of the financial crisis has been to increase public support for extra spending on help for industry, which is now higher than it was in the late 1980s, albeit at only 15 per cent, while support for extra government spending on police and prisons has fallen by almost half since the start of the economic crisis in 2008 (from 19 per cent to 10 per cent). 

Notably, only a very small proportion of the public - one in twenty - now support increased spending on social security benefits, a reduction from 13 per cent in the early 1990s. This figure has not increased in recent years, despite the recession and prolonged economic stagnation, reflecting the falling numbers who believe that the provision of a decent standard of living for the unemployed is a government responsibility (Table 2.1). Similarly, we see that support for extra government spending on housing has declined since 1983, when 20 per cent identified this as one of their top two priorities; this has fallen to 15 per cent in 2012. This decline may be linked to the reduction in support for the government providing decent housing for those who cannot afford it (Table 2.1). 


undefinedThus far we have seen that, overall, the British public does not appear to have become less collectivist over time in its support for government activities and spending. Levels of support for government taxation and spending are very similar to those witnessed three decades ago, with fluctuations in the intervening period clearly being linked to trends in government activity in this area. Attitudes towards government responsibility are also broadly similar to those recorded three decades ago. However, we see markedly reduced support for the government's role in providing support for certain disadvantaged groups, particularly the unemployed, and this is reflected in lower priority being given to extra spending in related areas. Given this change, we now turn to explore further attitudes to the government's role in providing support for these groups in general, alongside the related issues of income inequality and income redistribution. 


1. 1987 was chosen as the starting point for our analysis in order to use a comparable measure of social class with all subsequent years.

2. The bases for Table 2.5 are as follows:


3. The bases for Table 2.6 are as follows:


4. The bases for Table 2.7 are as follows:


5. The bases for Table 2.8 are as follows: