BSA 34: Survey reveals Britain wants less nanny state, more attentive parent

Britain wants the state to open its wallet, keep a watchful eye to keep us safe, but let us live our private lives how we wish

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) has today released its 34th annual British Social Attitudes report.

The story told by NatCen's report is of a country expecting more from the state. There are clear signs of increased support for a government that is more generous with its spending and a growing public willingness to pay for it. Meanwhile many people in Britain are prepared to sacrifice civil liberties in favour of protecting national security. This combination of more support for a traditional left-wing view on the economy, and a traditionally conservative position on law and order seems to signal a role for a more active state. 

Yet, alongside this we identify a growing acceptance of difference in our personal lives, even among those who have tended to be more conservative, and a desire for the state to allow people to make up their own minds on issues like abortion and euthanasia.

In the background, behind these bigger societal trends, lie Brexit and immigration where the vote to leave the EU appears to have sharpened our Euroscepticism.

A more generous state

NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey of 2,942 people uncovers evidence of a shift to the left on the economy since the financial crisis and the austerity that followed. We are more likely to expect government to create jobs and redistribute wealth and many of us are happy to pay more tax. We are also less likely to hold negative views towards people in receipt of benefits.

  • Tax more, spend more: More people (48%) say they want higher taxes to pay for more spending on health, education and social benefits, the highest level for more than a decade. 44% say they want it to stay the same and 4% would like to see taxes cut. Despite the recent swing we have still not reached the heights of the 1990s when six in ten favoured more spending.
  • Redistribution: More people (42%) say that government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off than disagree (28%).  Before the financial crisis fewer people supported redistribution than opposed it (34% and 38% respectively in 2006). Although, support for more redistribution is still lower than the peak it reached during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Job creation and red-tape: Eight in ten (83%) support government financing projects to create new jobs, up from seven in ten (72%) in 2006. While the proportion who want government to cut regulation of business is now only a third (34%), down from 40% in 2006.
  • Spending priorities: Eight in ten think government should spend more or much more on health (83%), seven in ten on education (71%), six in ten on the police (57%). By contrast only 16% would support more spending on benefits for the unemployed.

Less cynical about benefit claimants: After more than two decades of relatively tough attitudes, there are signs that views towards benefit recipients may be softening, though the public doesn’t view all those in receipt of support from the state equally.

  • Benefit fraud: The proportion who say most dole claimants are ‘fiddling’ has dropped from 35% in 2014 to 22% in 2016 – its lowest level since the question was first asked on the survey in 1986.
  • Deserving help: The proportion who say that most social security claimants don’t deserve help dropped from 32% in 2014 to 21% in 2016, the lowest ever level on the survey.
  • Less cynical, but still cynical: On average the public estimate that 34 out of every 100 people receiving benefits have given false information to support their claim.

But all people are not equal: Support for spending on pensions is down, it’s up on benefits for the disabled, and the public is less damning of tax fraud than benefit fraud.

  • Priorities for benefits spending: For the first time in more than 30 years, pensions are not the public’s top priority for extra spending on benefits. The proportion identifying retirement pensions as being among their top two priorities for extra welfare spending has fallen from 72% in 2010 to 60% and was overtaken by support for more spending on benefits for people who are disabled for the first time. 67% now prioritise spending on benefits for disabled people, up from 53% in 2010. Support for spending on unemployment benefits is slightly higher than it was prior to the financial crisis, but as few as 13% include it among their top two priorities, a much lower level than during the 1980s and 1990s.
  • “Tax dodgers” vs “benefits scroungers”: 61% of people think it is wrong for benefit claimants to use legal loopholes to increase their payments, compared with 48% who think it is wrong to use legal loopholes to pay less tax.  The view that it is acceptable to use legal loopholes to pay less tax is most strongly felt among people who are better off.

Protecting national security

The survey finds Britain holding traditionally “conservative” views on national security and law and order. Even before the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London the public favoured stronger state powers to tackle terrorism even at the expense of individual rights.

  • Detention without trial: At a time of a suspected terrorist attack, more than half the population (53%) would support detaining people indefinitely without putting them on trial. The law currently restricts this to 14 days.
  • Stop and search: Seven in ten (70%) believe authorities should have the right to stop and search people at random if a terrorist attack is suspected. Currently a police officer can only stop and search without “reasonable grounds" if a senior police officer has authorised it in advance.
  • Big brother: 80% think the government should have the right to keep people under video surveillance in public areas, while 50% think they should have the right to monitor emails and other information exchanged on the Internet.
  • Obey the law: The proportion who say that it is acceptable not to obey a law, even if that particular law is wrong, has declined from a high point of 37% in 1991 to only 24%.
  • Defence spending: Four in ten (39%) back more defence spending, more people than at any time during the past 30 years. Only two in ten (20%) want to see it cut.

Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes, National Centre for Social Research:

“People’s tolerance for austerity is drying up, even if that means higher taxes. This leftwards tilt on tax and spend is matched by a long-running conservatism on national security and law and order. In all, people want a more active state that’s firm but fairer.”     

More freedom in our personal lives

While the public is content with a more active government in the public sphere, NatCen finds an increasingly liberal attitude towards our personal lives. Those opposed to same-sex relationships and sex before marriage are part of an ever shrinking minority and most also support the right of people to choose to have an abortion or end their own life.

Free to love: Britain’s sexual liberalisation continues unfettered with views on everything from sex before marriage to same-sex relationships and adult films becoming more liberal than ever before. Most striking has been the shift in the views of Britain’s Christian population and the closing of the gap in views between younger and older people.

  • Sex before marriage: Three quarters (75%) now say sex before marriage is “not wrong at all”. This stood at under two thirds (64%) in 2012. 73% of Anglicans agree that sex before marriage is not at all wrong, up from 54% only four years earlier and around double the proportion who said this in 1985. In 2005 the gap between the youngest and the oldest people on whether sex before marriage is “not wrong at all” was 53 percentage points, it has now halved to 25 points.
  • Same-sex relationships: Attitudes towards same-sex relationships have become significantly more liberal with 64% of people now saying that they are “not wrong at all”, up from 59% in 2015, and 47% in 2012. Over half (55%) of Anglicans say same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”, up from 31% only four years previously.
  • Adult films: 45% of people believe adults should be able to watch whatever films they like, however violent or pornographic, up from 32% of people in 1996.  There remains, however a big gender and age divide on this issue, with six in ten (58%) of men and young people (60%) saying adults should be able to watch any film they choose, compared with three in ten women (32%) and two in ten (20%) over 75.

A right to choose: When it comes to both abortion and euthanasia, the public is inclined to allow individuals to do as they choose.

  • Abortion: More people than ever say an abortion should be allowed if a woman decides on her own she does not want the child (70%) or if a couple cannot afford any more children (65%). Most remarkably perhaps the proportion of Catholics who agree an abortion should be allowed if a women does not want the child jumped from 33% in 1985 to 61% in 2016.
  • Euthanasia: 77% of people feel a person with a painful incurable disease should be able to legally request that a doctor end their life. Around eight in ten have backed euthanasia under these circumstances throughout the past 30 years.

Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes, National Centre for Social Research:

“The rise of social liberalism continues seemingly undented by Brexit, Trump and Le Pen. In fact, if anything, the trend that has seen Britain happier than ever to accept greater diversity in relationships has accelerated in recent years. Unlike on Brexit and the election, this is an area where the generations are increasingly united.”

Brexit and immigration

  • More Eurosceptic than ever: In the immediate aftermath of the Referendum the public has become more sceptical about the EU than ever before. Three in four (75%) feel that Britain should either leave the EU or that if it stays the EU’s powers should be reduced, up from 65% in 2015. Only one in five favoured the status quo or EU expansion.  
  • A widening social divide: Views on immigration have become more polarised. The young and highly educated are more likely than ever to believe that immigration is good for the economy, while older people and non-graduates are more likely to say immigration is bad for the economy.
  • Choosier about immigrants:  Two thirds of people (65%) believe all migrants to the UK should speak English, have good educational qualifications and work skills needed in Britain, compared with half of people (49%) in 2002.


For more information or copies of the report, contact: 

Leigh Marshall, 0207 549 8506 / 07828 031 850

Sophie Brown, 0207 549 9550  


  • The National Centre for 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 34th Report is published on 28 June 2017 and is freely available at:
  • The editors are Elizabeth Clery, John Curtice and Roger Harding.
  • 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 2016 British Social Attitudes survey consisted of 2,942 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain with a response rate of 46%. Interviewing was carried out between 13 July and 30 November 2016. 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 2016 survey were funded by the following: the Department for Work and Pensions, The Government Equalities Office, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, The King’s Fund, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The National Housing Federation, The Trade Union Congress, the UK Statistics Authority and the Economic and the Social Research Council (ESRC).
  • The views expressed in this report are those of the report authors and editors alone. 

The 34th Report includes the following chapters: