The recently published British Social Attitude reports that people are now less supportive of the welfare state than they were in the Thatcher years. It seems that sympathy towards benefit claimants has evaporated, along with support for redistributive tax and spend policies, over the past 20 years.
In 1991, 58% thought that the government should spend more on benefits. By 2009 this had more than halved to 27%. And while over half (51%) backed policies to redistribute income from rich to poor in 1989, this has now fallen to 36%.
But concern about inequality in wealth has simultaneously grown, with 78% of people now saying the income gap between rich and poor is too large.
Public satisfaction with health and education services has improved dramatically over the same period. The report’s authors see this as something that the coalition government should take note of.
Satisfaction with the NHS is at an all time high. When Labour gained power in 1997, only a third of people (34%) were satisfied with the NHS, the lowest level since the survey began in 1983. By 2009, satisfaction had nearly doubled to 64%
Public confidence in our politicians has plummeted after the expenses scandal. Four in 10 “almost never” trust British governments to put the national interest first – about four times as high as during the 1980s.
Trust in bankers has fallen even further, which is not surprising. In 1983, 90% believed banks were well run. Now just 19% think that banks are well run – a surprisingly high figure, in my opinion.
Penny Young, chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research, which has carried out the annual British Social Attitudes survey of more than 3,500 people every year since 1983, sees two main messages from the latest results.
“It is twenty years since Margaret Thatcher left office, but public opinion is far closer now to many of her core beliefs than it was then. Our findings show that attitudes have hardened over the last two decade, and are more in favour of cutting benefits and against taxing the better off disproportionately,” said Young.
But Young also warns the government to take note of the views expressed on public services. “Britain today is sending a clear message to Cameron and Clegg that it values the investment Labour has made in this country’s core public services,” she said.
The British people appear to value high quality public services, but at the same time have little sympathy for those on benefits. It would seem that there is still such a thing as society, although whether we are a compassionate society may well be open to question.