BSA 33: Britain Divided? Public Attitudes after seven years of austerity

Britain Divided? Public Attitudes after seven years of austerity

NatCen Social Research today released the 33rd annual British Social Attitudes report. NatCen’s landmark study of public attitudes focuses on how straightened times have affected how we feel about class, public spending and the workplace. We uncover a Britain that believes that the class divide has widened and which is feeling the impact of austerity, but is split over how to respond.

Economic instability and the class divide

The British economy has experienced considerable stress and change in recent years and we might expect this to have affected how we think about class and our place in society. It seems that it has. We find that British people believe that there is a wide gulf between people of different classes and that it is harder today than in the past to move from one class to another.

-       Class divide: Most people (77%) think the class divide is fairly or very wide, compared with 23% who say it is not very wide or there is no difference. People who identify as working class (82%) are more likely than those who say they are middle class (70%) to believe the divide between social classes is wide.  

-       Less socially mobile: More people believe it is difficult to move between classes today than did 10 years ago. Nearly 3 in 4 (73%) believe it is fairly or very difficult to move between classes, compared with 65% who held this view in 2005. People who identify as working class are more likely than middle class identifiers to think moving between classes is very difficult.

-       Majority working class: With the decline of Britain’s manufacturing base manual workers are no longer in the majority in Britain. Nevertheless, 60% of people describe themselves as working class compared with 40% who say they are middle class, the same as in 1983. Almost half of people in professional and managerial occupations say they are working class.

Kirby Swales, Director of NatCen’s Survey Centre: “The class divide is alive and well in Britain and the economic instability and austerity of recent years seem to have sharpened our belief that it is difficult to move from one class to another. Class divisions have been highlighted recently with the vote to leave the EU with some commentators talking about disaffection among the working class. Our findings certainly show that people who believe themselves to be working class are more likely to believe in a class divide than those who say they are middle class and more think it is difficult to move between classes than did in the past.

Class identity is also closely linked to attitudes in other areas. Those who say they are working class are far more likely to be opposed to immigration, one of the defining issues of the EU Referendum, even when they are in professional and managerial jobs.”

Austerity vs public spending

After seven years of austerity we might expect the public to begin to tire of cuts in spending. Such a reaction now seems to be emerging. Support for increases in overall public spending and spending on benefits is now higher than it was before the financial crash, while more people think that the NHS has a severe funding problem.

-       Support for public spending at pre-crash level: Public backing for more taxation and public spending is at its highest point (45%) for a decade. Almost as many now want to see spending and taxation increased as would like them to stay the same (47%).

-       Opposition to benefit cuts: A majority are opposed to cuts to welfare and 39% think that the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor – higher than at any time since 2003.

-       NHS funding crisis: Almost everyone(93%), thinks the NHS has a funding problem and 32% say this problem is severe – up from 19% in 2014. In spite of this, there is no consensus about how to bridge the funding gap. While 42% are willing to pay more through taxes, 26% say the NHS should live within its means.

However, the public’s views on benefits depend on who is the recipient. People are particularly unsympathetic towards the unemployed and benefit recipients of working age with no children.

-       Changing priorities: Since 2011, public support for more spending on benefits for people who are disabled and cannot work has increased by 8 percentage points up to 61% and for single parents by 7, up to 36%. Over the same period support for more spending on retired people has fallen by 8 points although the proportion in favour is still as high as a half (49%).

-       Tough on the unemployed: 45% back a cut in benefits for unemployed people. Six in ten say there should be a limit on how long people receive unemployment benefit. And more than 8 in 10 say people should take a job that is unsuitable in some way if they are unemployed and in receipt of benefits.

-       Spare bedroom subsidy: A majority of people (55%) oppose the reduction of housing benefit for people with a spare bedroom. However, 48% of those aged 18-24 back the policy, compared with only 31% of those 75 or over.

Elizabeth Clery, Research Director, NatCen Social Research: “We have witnessed a big rise in support for higher public spending; support is now back to a level not seen since before the financial crash. After seven years of austerity the public is clearly worried about the funding of the NHS and reckons that, for some groups at least, spending on benefits should be increased.

However, not all cuts to welfare are unpopular. Almost half the public want cuts to unemployment benefits and very few want to see them increased. Even a supposedly controversial cut to benefits like the ‘bedroom tax’ is pretty popular among a large segment of the population. This is especially true for young people who may be struggling to find an affordable place to live.”

The recession and our experience of work

We might expect a long period of recession and economic instability to have affected how we feel about our jobs. We might for example, expect more people to feel insecure and thus unhappy about their jobs.

At first glance, however, the British public appear to have come out the other side of the recession happier at work and more positive about their jobs.

-       Better jobs for more people: The overall proportion of workers who have a good job (that is, one with at least four attributes such as ‘opportunities for advancement’ or ‘a high income’) has increased from 57% in 1989 and 62% in 2005 to 71% now. Contrary to expectations, no groups have seen a decrease in job quality; this is true for older and younger people, those in the highest social class and those in the lowest, and both men and women.

-       More than just the money: In 2015, 62% of people said they would enjoy having a job even if they didn’t need the money. This figure is considerably higher than the 49% who were of this view in 2005.

However, some people, especially in working class occupations, are finding work more stressful and less flexible. 

-       Stress at work: The proportion of workers who say they experience stress in their jobs has increased and now stands at 37%. Those in lower skilled occupations have seen one of the greatest increases in stress: 29% of those in semi-routine and routine jobs find work stressful ‘always’ or ‘often’, up from 19% in 2005.

-       Freedom for some: More workers today say they are free to decide how to organise their daily work. However, while more people in professional and managerial jobs are able to control their patterns of work, fewer people in lower skilled jobs can do so; 57% of those in routine or semi-routine jobs say they are not free to decide how their daily work is organised compared with 42% in 2005.


For more information or copies of the report, contact: 

Leigh Marshall, 0207 549 8506 / 07828 031 850

Sophie Brown, 0207 549 9550  


  • NatCen Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (
  • British Social Attitudes: the 33rd Report is published on 30 June 2016 and is freely available at:
  • The editors are Elizabeth Clery, John Curtice and Miranda Phillips.
  • History –The British Social Attitudes survey has been conducted annually since 1983. Since then around 100,000 people have taken part in the survey.
  • Sample and approach –The 2015 British Social Attitudes survey consisted of 4,328 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain with a response rate of 51%. Interviewing was carried out between 4th July and 2nd November. Addresses are randomly selected and visited by one of NatCen Social Research’s interviewers. After selecting one adult at the address (again at random), the interviewer carries out an hour long interview.
  • Topics – the topics covered by the survey change from year to year, depending on the identities and interests of its funders. Some questions are asked every year, others every couple of years, and others less frequently.
  • Funding –The survey is funded by a range of charitable and government sources, which change from year to year. Questions in the 2015 survey were funded by the following: the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Transport, The King’s Fund, the Economic and the Social Research Council (ESRC), Public Health England, The Government Equalities Office, The Danish Research Council, Jesus College Major Research Grants Fund and Nuffield College.
  • The views expressed in this report are those of the report authors and editors alone.

The 33rd Report includes the following chapters

NHS: Trends in dissatisfaction and attitudes to funding

Politics: Political attitudes and behaviour in the wake of an intense constitutional debate

Social class: Identity, awareness and political attitudes: why are we still working class?

Work: Attitudes and experiences of work in a changing labour market

Welfare: Support for government welfare reform