We started by highlighting the range of theories that now abound to explain the current state of the nation. Our report shows that none of them quite tells the whole picture.
The differences in EU Referendum vote choice were more marked by education level than class, and early indications from the recent general election suggest the differences were most marked by age. Therefore, the ‘anywhere’/’somewhere’, ‘open’/’closed’ and ‘culture
wars’ theories seem worth exploring more. However, they all suggest or imply that the social conservatism of older people will hold out against the liberalism of the young. This thought does not sit easily with the liberalisation of older people’s attitudes to premarital sex and same-sex relationships, especially as the change seems to be accelerating. Generational
divides on these issues remain, but they are closing. If anything, views on personal relationships are now a source of growing cross-generational unity rather than division.
The idea that a rising ‘anti-politics’ was at the heart of the EU referendum decision is also found wanting. While it is a factor, it is apparently only a small one. The theory that we are split between those doing well economically from globalisation and those ‘left behind’
is not, in contrast, undermined, but it is not the only or even necessarily the most significant divide on the EU question. Working-class people did lean towards Brexit, but a person’s education level was far more important in identifying how they voted than class. Cultural concerns about immigration, identity and sovereignty mattered, not just concerns about the economic consequences of globalisation. We are, it seems, a country split on the intertwined issues of the EU and immigration, and especially between younger
graduates and older people without qualifications. Indeed, it seems that the gap on attitudes towards immigration is widening and has become one of the most significant in Europe.
Looking down more traditional left versus conservative political lines, supporters from either side can be buoyed by these findings (they would therefore be wise to not just read the parts of the report they find most appealing). For those on the left, it does seem that the country is tiring of austerity. There are also signs that attitudes to benefit recipients are softening,
and the majority think even low-level tax evasion is unacceptable. However, conservatives can be reassured that people remain committed to wanting a strong response to crime and terror, and the proportion wanting an increase in defence spending is the highest yet. While most people are tough on tax evasion, they are even tougher on benefit fraud. In both cases many of the trends that we see in these areas are important but not revolutionary. Anyone
looking to use them to make stark claims about the end of this or that era, ideology or creed will not be someone too troubled by actual evidence.
It is perhaps always the National Centre for Social Research and the BSA survey’s job to cut across our desire to explain events with simple narratives. However, on balance, we do seem more socially liberal, keener on more tax and spend and tough on law, order and security, while we are very clearly divided on the EU and immigration. Whatever our views, let
us hope there is always unity on the need to explore our differences with civility, and on the importance of robust social research to measure them.
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