BSA37: Key time series press release

British Social Attitudes survey reveals softening of attitudes towards welfare and immigration

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) has today published new research from its 37th annual British Social Attitudes report, charting key trends in public attitudes towards welfare, government spending, national identity and immigration, central issues for society and the economy as Britain navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and its departure from the single market and customs union.

NatCen's research reveals that Britain has softened dramatically in its attitudes towards welfare since 2015, reversing a trend towards tougher attitudes that persisted since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Britain’s stance on immigration has become markedly more favourable. Since the EU referendum, a view of immigration as both economically beneficial and culturally enriching has come to the fore in British society.

The survey also reveals shifts in national identity, unfolding in the background to Britain’s departure from the EU. In an era of apparent division in the wake of Brexit, it appears that within England at least, British identity has become more widely shared.

Alongside these major trends, support for increased tax and spending remains above the level it has been for most of the last two decades, while support for increased spending on police and prisons has reached a record high.

Gillian Prior, Director of Surveys, Data and Analysis at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “Our research reveals how the public viewed key social issues shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s upcoming departure from the single market. We cannot be sure how either COVID-19 or Brexit will eventually affect the public mood. However, the dramatic softening in attitudes towards welfare in recent years strongly suggests the public may prove sympathetic towards more generous welfare benefits for people who lose their jobs because of the pandemic – especially if there is a substantial increase in the level of unemployment. In terms of Brexit, our research reveals a major shift towards viewing immigration as both culturally enriching and good for the economy. With UK about to gain control of immigration between it and the EU, it would seem voters may approve of quite liberal application of that control.”


  • Dramatic softening of attitudes: The proportion of people who think benefits are too high and discourage work has fallen from 59% in 2015 to 35% today.
  • For the first time since 2001, the proportion who think benefits are too low and cause hardship (36%) now equals the proportion who think benefits are too high.

  • Concern about welfare ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’ much less widespread now than half a decade ago: Just 15% of people agree with the idea that “people who receive social security don’t really deserve any help”, the lowest level ever recorded.

  • The proportion who disagree grew from a third (33%) in 2015 to almost half (47%) today.


Given the outcome of the EU referendum and the UK’s decision to end freedom of movement, it may appear surprising that the public has developed markedly more favourable views of immigration since the beginning of the decade.

  • Enriching for cultural life in Britain: The proportion of people saying immigration enriches cultural life has increased from 26% in 2011 to 46% today, while the proportion saying immigration undermines Britain’s cultural life has halved from 40% to 19% during the same period.

  • Good for the economy: The proportion of people saying immigration is good for the economy has more than doubled from 21% in 2011 to 47% today. Meanwhile, the proportion who rate immigration as bad for the economy has shrunk from 43% in 2011 to just 15% today.

Decline of Englishness?

  • More people in England considering themselves ‘British’ rather than ‘English’: When forced to choose between the two identities, fewer than ever say they are English (28%) while nearly twice as many now say they are British (53%).

  • After years of gradual decline, the proportion who say they are more or exclusively English (20%) is now smaller than the proportion who say they are more or exclusively British (26%).

Taxation and spending

  • Small majority back an increase in taxation and spending: 53% back increased tax and spend. Although down on the 60% who did so in 2017, it is still well up on the figure of 37% recorded as recently as 2014.

  • Record support for spending on housing, police and prisons: Around a quarter of people now name housing (25%) or police and prisons (24%) among their top two priorities for extra government spending. Support for extra spending on police and prisons has quadrupled since 2016 when it was at just 6%. 

  • Health and education still dominate the agenda:

    Despite declining since 2017, two thirds (65%) still name health among their top two priorities and almost half name education (47%).