Key findings

Social attitudes in an age of austerity

  • In a period of extended recession, and with the Coalition government having embarked on a severe programme of cuts to public services, we ask how the British public is reacting. Are people looking to the state to protect public services and social welfare, or are they turning away from government being the answer? With nearly three decades of data covering three recessions and five prime ministers, British Social Attitudes is uniquely placed to answer these questions.

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    Highlights

  • Role of the state

    There are initial signs of increased concern about the impact of public expenditure cuts on public services such as health and education. But there is also a longer-term hardening of attitudes towards redistribution and welfare.

    The proportion calling for the government to increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits rose for the first time in nine years – up five points to 36%. The principle of a tax-funded health service available to all is supported by a clear majority: 73% oppose the idea of the NHS being “available only to those with lower incomes”.

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    Highlights

  • Role of the state

    There are initial signs of increased concern about the impact of public expenditure cuts on public services such as health and education. But there is also a longer-term hardening of attitudes towards redistribution and welfare.

    Set against this, neither redistribution in general nor welfare benefits in particular are as popular as they once were. During the previous recession in 1991, 58% agreed that “government should spend more on welfare benefits even if it leads to higher taxes” – more than double the proportion who think this now (28%).

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  • Social divisions

    There are signs of increasing social divisions, particularly in terms of attitudes towards welfare recipients and immigrants.

    The most vulnerable in the labour market are viewed far less sympathetically than before, despite Britain’s current economic difficulties. This change predates the recession, and the trend has continued in recent years. From 2008–2011, even support for more spending on benefits for disabled people unable to work fell from 63% to 53%.

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  • Social divisions

    There are signs of increasing social divisions, particularly in terms of attitudes towards welfare recipients and immigrants.

    There is increased concern about immigration, another trend that predates the recession. The proportion thinking that “Britain’s cultural life is generally undermined” by immigration has increased, with 47% taking this view, up from 33% in 2002.

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Introduction

Four years on from the banking crisis of 2008, Britain remains less wealthy than it was before the crisis began. Growth remains elusive at best. The coalition government has embarked upon a programme of cuts the size of which has not been seen since the Second World War (Chote, 2010). The result? The British public has been presented with a rude reminder of the potential fragility of its material wellbeing.

Pullquote _Key Findings _1How are people reacting in this extended period of recession and austerity? In this short summary, drawing on evidence from our 29th British Social Attitudes report, we provide some answers. The summary highlights public attitudes on two different themes: the role of the state, and social unity. In doing so, we focus in particular on two very different potential responses. The first is what we might call the social democratic reaction, in which people rediscover their faith in the role of the state. Having seen market mechanisms and private sector institutions fail so visibly, they increasingly value the state's role as a provider of important public services and necessary social protection, and perhaps even as a way of achieving a more equal society. Awareness that few people's jobs or incomes are safe leads to increased sympathy for those who have fallen on hard times, including those who require support from the welfare state. This response might see a feeling of solidarity, a sense that 'we are all in it together', and perhaps a belief that the better-off should shoulder more of the financial burden.

But one can also imagine a different reaction, one that points towards far less reliance on a centralised state. People may increasingly feel that the state is the problem and not the solution. A government that cannot pay its way is seen as profligate and wasteful, leading to an increasing desire to cut back both on taxes and on spending. There might be a growing feeling that people should look after themselves in times of trouble rather than expecting government or the rest of society to 'bail them out'. We may also see increasing social division, as people believe that others, whom they see as less 'deserving', are taking things (jobs, benefits, or access to state services) away from them.

The longevity and impartiality of British Social Attitudes puts us in a unique position to assess Britain's reaction to austerity. The survey series was created by NatCen Social Research in 1983, shortly before Margaret Thatcher's second election victory. Many key questions are repeated each year, and three decades of data now cover seven elections, five prime ministers and three recessions. This allows us to put current responses to austerity into a longer-term perspective. Perhaps what is happening to the public mood is little different from what has happened before - no more than a cyclical response to the ups and downs of economic activity. But if what we are seeing now differs greatly from the past then we may be uncovering evidence that the country wants to move in a different long-term direction.

We start by shedding light on how people view the role of the state, focusing on taxation and public services, the NHS, welfare and inequality. We then look at the extent to which austerity is drawing us together, or pushing us apart. Finally we look at what austerity means for families and explore the pressures that they are facing.