What do citizens want from the state?
Every government makes tough decisions about how much it should tax and spend. Previous research indicates that attitudes towards taxation and spending are cyclical (Soroka and Wlezien, 2005; Wlezien, 1995). So when public expenditure goes up, people's appetite for better public services is increasingly satisfied. Their support for further increases then falls away as their concern turns instead to the amount of tax they are paying. But when expenditure is reduced, support for more spending increases, as people become dissatisfied with the state of public services.
This pattern is clearly illustrated in Figure 0.1,
which shows responses to our long-running question about taxation
and public spending. When British Social Attitudes first began in
1983, only one third (32 per cent) wanted to see government
"increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social
benefits", while 54 per cent wanted to "keep taxes and spending on
these services at the same level as now". But as the efforts of the
Thatcher government to curb public expenditure began to bite, so
the public mood changed drastically. By 1991, when the economy was
beginning to enter recession, no less than two-thirds (65 per cent)
said they wanted to see taxes and spending increase. Thereafter,
the figure remained consistent at around three-fifths until 2003,
from which point it fell repeatedly in reaction to the substantial
increases in public spending that took place under the then Labour
government. By 2010, only 31 per cent wanted to see increased
public spending, dipping below the figure recorded in Thatcher's
heyday in 1983. But in 2011, the proportion calling for an increase
in taxation and spending rose for the first time in nine years - up
five points to 36 per cent - while 55 per cent would like to see
spending levels stay as they are. This is a modest increase, but it
could well be the first sign of a reaction against the public
spending reductions that the government has begun to implement, and
which are set to accumulate between now and 2017.
Of all Britain's public services, the NHS has a special place in the public's heart. Since the survey began, it has consistently been the most popular target for additional spending, with 68 per cent per cent choosing it in 2011 as either their first or second priority for more spending (education is the second most popular, at 61 per cent). Any possibility that the NHS might no longer be primarily a universal service free to all at the point of access meets with widespread and largely unchanging levels of opposition. As our Health chapter shows, the proportion opposing the idea of the NHS being "available only to those with lower incomes" meaning that "contributions and taxes could be lower and most people would then take out medical insurance or pay for health care" has remained consistent at around 70 per cent for more than 20 years. So when it comes to the principle of a tax-funded health service available to all, majority public opinion has remained largely unchanged.
However, the public is now showing signs of concern as to whether this principle will continue to guide the NHS in the future. When asked whether they think that "in 10 years' time the NHS will still be paid for by taxes and free to all", just under half (47 per cent) say yes while almost as many (44%) say no.
But this is not to say that the public think the NHS is perfect. Our Health chapter offers insights into a number of findings about people's views on the NHS and how it might change. We have seen satisfaction with the NHS fall for the first time in 10 years: from a high of 70 per cent in 2010 to 58 per cent now; a sign perhaps of early unease about the possible impact of funding restraint, no doubt fuelled by the recent controversy about NHS reform.
And there is an appetite for modest, though possibly not radical, change. Over half (55 per cent) believe that "a few changes" are needed to "the health care system in Britain", while another third (32 per cent) think it needs "many changes". Only small minorities (five per cent in both cases) believe either that no changes are needed or that it "needs to be completely changed".
There are signs of some support for the central plank of the coalition government's reform, a more localised system that has GPs in charge of deciding how a substantial proportion of the NHS budget should be spent. Although only a third (34 per cent) think decisions about "how money is spent on your local NHS" should be made by local GPs, even fewer (30 per cent) think that these decisions should be made by the government. The remainder opt for other forms of local decision making, by either the local council (17 per cent) or local people in general (17 per cent).
So while the public retains its support for the state funding of the NHS, there is some appetite for more localised decision making.
One British Social Attitudes finding that has attracted considerable comment over the last few years has been its identification of increased public scepticism about the benefit system and a growing concern that welfare benefits may have a counterproductive impact on their recipients. So what impact has austerity and recession had on public support for government action in this area?
We would expect attitudes towards unemployment
benefits to be among the most responsive to recession. Figure 0.2
shows how people have responded since 1983 when asked to choose
between two statements about benefits for unemployed people: that
they are "too low and cause hardship" or that they are "too high
and discourage them from finding jobs". The findings show that
attitudes were indeed shaped somewhat by the recession of the early
1990s, with the proportion of people thinking unemployment benefits
were too low increasing from 46 per cent in 1986 to a peak of 55
per cent in 1993. But the proportion who felt this began to fall
away when Labour came to power in 1997, and then continued to fall
in spite of the buoyant economy of the early years of the
21st century. By 2007 the proportion feeling that
unemployment benefits were too low had seemingly settled at around
the 25 per cent mark. Since then there is little evidence of a
change of mood, despite the recent recession; indeed our latest
reading in 2011 shows that the proportion who consider unemployment
benefits too low has shrunk still further (to 19 per cent).
Responses to other questions, considered in our Welfare chapter,
show a similar trend. So, for example, during the previous
recession in 1991, 58 per cent agreed that "government should spend
more on welfare benefits even if it leads to higher taxes" - over
double the proportion who think this now (28 per cent in
Of course some benefit recipients might be looked upon more kindly than others. The retired, for instance, are often seen to be part of a 'deserving poor' that excludes groups like single parents or the unemployed (Taylor-Gooby and Martin, 2008). Indeed the current government's attitude towards welfare appears to draw a distinction between those in retirement and others in receipt of benefits (Cameron, 2012). Table 0.1 shows how attitudes towards benefits for various groups have evolved over the last 10 years or so. It shows that people do indeed make a distinction between different groups. At one end of the spectrum there is almost universal support for increasing government spending on the benefits paid to those who care for someone who is sick or disabled (75 per cent), whereas very few people back increased spending on benefits for unemployed people (just 15 per cent). But perhaps the most striking feature of this table is the trend common to each and every group - namely that support for more spending on benefits has fallen since 1998, and in many cases quite markedly between 2008 and 2011. As we might expect from the results we have seen so far, in some cases this trend began well before the recession. So, for example, the proportion favouring more spending on benefits for disabled people who cannot work fell from 74 per cent in 1999 to 64 per cent in 2006. But it has fallen even further since then - down from 64 to 53 per cent - and the same is true for almost all the groups in the table. If anything (unlike our findings on taxation and spending), here it seems that the recession has prompted a wish to see the strings of the public purse tightened even more securely.
Britain's changing attitudes to welfare mirror another clear trend of the last two decades - a move away from a belief that government should attempt to deliver a more equal society through income redistribution. Before Labour came to power in 1997, the proportion agreeing with the view that "government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off" consistently remained well above 40 per cent, even hovering around 50 per cent during the recession of the early 1990s. But from 1998 onwards only once has the figure been higher than 40 per cent, with 37 per cent agreeing in 2011 (Figure 0.3). While that is higher than the levels seen between 2004-2007, there's little sign here that the advent of recession - or even the public disquiet about the amounts of money paid to corporate chief executives (not least those in charge of some of Britain's banks) - has rekindled support for a more redistributive state to the levels that existed last time a Conservative Prime Minister occupied 10 Downing Street. This is also despite the fact that Labour's attempts to reduce inequality failed to reverse the large growth in inequality that occurred between the late 1970s and early 1990s (Hills et al., 2010).
Britain clearly entered this recession less convinced than before that it was government's responsibility to alleviate inequality, either through income redistribution or welfare provision.