Just before the end of last year, we reported the results of the first phase of a study of the impact of the pandemic on people’s social and political attitudes. It was based on a wave of data collection undertaken in July 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic was coming to an end, via NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel. Most of the questions included on the survey were ones that had been asked on previous British Social Attitudes surveys, thereby enabling us to compare attitudes during the pandemic with those beforehand. The report argued that the initial months of lockdown had had relatively little impact on the distribution of attitudes – although a more favourable attitude towards welfare for those of working age that was already evident before the pandemic had been maintained. As a result, there was perhaps a more favourable climate for the government’s ‘furlough’ scheme and the £20 increase in the level of Universal Credit than might otherwise have been the case.
However, we also noted that the restrictions on people’s lives had already been in place much longer than many had originally anticipated. Consequently, we could not rule out the possibility that data collected later into lockdown might produce a different picture.
The publication today of the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) report gives us a first opportunity to address this possibility. The report unveils the results of the latest BSA survey, undertaken between October and December last year, just as the prevalence of COVID-19 was on the rise again. Thanks to the pandemic, the survey had to be undertaken online rather than face to face (as previously), but it means that for many of the questions we asked back in July 2020 we now have a second reading of the distribution of attitudes during the pandemic.
Looking at the two sources of evidence in combination, a chapter in the report by Dominic Abrams, Curtis Jessop and myself confirms our previous finding that attitudes towards the unemployed continue to be more favourable than they were during the era of New Labour and the early years of the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. For example, in the latest BSA just 42% agreed that ‘around here most people could find a job if they really wanted one’, down from 51% in 2019 and the lowest proportion in any BSA survey since 1996.
However, the chapter also identifies two other apparent trends. The first is that rather more people than before the pandemic now regard Britain as an unequal society. Both the July 2020 survey and the later BSA one show, for example, that 64% agree that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’, up from 57% in 2019, and the highest figure since 1998. There are signs that this increase was most marked among younger people, though it is less clear that it has resulted in increased support for redistribution from the better-off to the less well-off.
The second finding of note is that a trend that was already in evidence before the pandemic, in the direction of a more questioning outlook towards the role of law and the value of conformity in society, appears to have continued further. After falling to 68% in July, now the proportion who agree that ‘schools should teach children to obey authority’ stands in the BSA survey at just 62%. Not only is this well down on the 72% recorded in 2019, but it is the lowest figure that BSA has recorded since the question was first asked in 1986.
However, it is only this last trend that has taken us into previously uncharted territory. Attitudes towards working-age welfare and the unemployed in particular are still not as favourable as they were for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Concern about inequality is also still somewhat short of what it was then. It looks as though that, for the most part, the landscape of public opinion that policy makers and politicians will have to negotiate after the pandemic will look relatively familiar, and especially so for those more mature in years. If, as some commentators have suggested, the pandemic is to be a ‘reset’ moment that inaugurates a very different direction for public policy in Britain, politicians may well find themselves having to persuade the public of the value of the change of direction that they propose. For the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ may well look much like the ‘old normal’, so far as people’s attitudes and values are concerned.