Changing expectations of the role and responsibility of government

British Social Attitudes found public expectations of government are at a record high, but why?

Public policy has had to deal with many an unexpected shock in the last twenty years. First, there was the financial crash of 2007-8, which required unprecedented government action to salvage the banking system, and which still led to a downturn in economic activity. Then 2020-21 witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst public health crisis in a century which required unprecedented intervention in the labour market to stop people losing jobs they were stopped from performing. This was immediately followed by the biggest inflationary surge since the 1970s which, in the wake of the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the price of energy, saw the government take unprecedented steps to subsidise the cost of domestic gas and electricity.

Between them these three shocks have challenged some previous assumptions about the role of government in the twenty-first century. Economic activity had become increasingly globalised. This meant the role of government was to help a country remain competitive in a global market by providing an educated workforce and adequate infrastructure, while avoiding overburdensome taxation, regulation, or other forms of intervention. Yet all three shocks were addressed by governmental action, not only in the UK but also in much of the rest of the world. They also raised question marks about the future of globalisation itself.

But what impact have these shocks had on public expectations of what government should do? This question is addressed in one of the chapters in the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, which, published by the National Centre for Social Research, marks the 40th anniversary of its flagship BSA survey, examining how social and political attitudes have changed since the first survey in 1983.

Some of the responsibilities that governments take on have always been more popular than others. Most of the people most of the time believe the government should ‘provide health care for the sick’. On the other hand, there has always been relatively limited support for the idea that it should be the government’s responsibility ‘to find a job for everyone who wants one’.

At the same time, however, the public’s expectations of government have shifted up and down over time. For example, in 1985, 52% said that it should ‘definitely’ be the government’s responsibility ‘to provide industry with the help it needs to grow’. Two decades later, in 2006, the figure had fallen to just 27%. It seemed as though in the wake of an extended period of economic growth and low inflation, the public felt this was no longer a job that needed to be performed by government anymore.

But then came the financial crash. And when BSA revisited the issue again in 2012, the proportion who felt it was definitely the government’s job to help industry had shot back up to 58%, higher than on any occasion between 1985 and 2006. It was as though the newly uncertain circumstances had changed minds.

However, the impact was short-lived. By 2016 the figure was down to 31%. But now two more shocks later, in our latest survey, it has increased to 63%, even higher than the figure recorded in 2012.

This same cyclical pattern has been recorded across each of seven areas of potential governmental responsibility. As a result, in 2006, on average respondents said the government should ‘definitely’ be responsible for 2.4 of the 7 areas, down from 3.4 in 1985. That number then increased to 3.6 in 2012, fell back to 2.4 again in 2016 and now is as high as 4.3.

One of the key responsibilities of government is, of course, taxation and spending. Every BSA since 1983 has asked respondents whether taxation and spending on ‘health, education, and social benefits’ should be increased, reduced, or kept the same as at present. The latest survey findings illustrate the trend in the proportion who say that taxation and spending should be increased has also been cyclical.

The story is a relatively straightforward one. When governments try to reduce taxation and spending, after a while the public begin to push back. However, if governments turn on the spending taps and perhaps increase spending along the way, then eventually the public’s appetite for better public services is met and support for increases falls away.

For example, in 1983, there was a relatively low level of support for more taxation and spending – just 32% said it should be increased. But in the wake of the Conservative government’s attempts to cut spending, by 1998, 63% wanted more tax and spend. The New Labour government of 1997-2010 eventually increased taxation and spending and, by 2010, support was all the way back to 31%, a mood that the banking crisis seemed, if anything, to reinforce rather than counteract.

Meanwhile, as we might by now anticipate the Conservative government’s programme of financial ‘austerity’ produced its own reaction – in 2019, on the eve of the pandemic, 53% wanted more taxation and spending.

Given this backdrop, we might expect that by now the public will have reacted against the significant increases in taxation and spending that were occasioned by the pandemic. But of that there is no sign. In our latest survey, still as many as 55% say that taxation and spending should be increased.

Perhaps, unlike the banking crisis, the shock of the pandemic has caused voters to change their views about what levels of taxation and spending are necessary and desirable.  Not least of the possible reasons is that where the rise in spending under New Labour was accompanied by marked improvements in and satisfaction with public services, at present voters are deeply dissatisfied with the performance of a health service that, despite injections of money, is still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

For the time being at least, the era of smaller government that Margaret Thatcher hoped to deliver currently looks to be a world away. But what remains to be seen is whether politicians can meet the high expectations that the public now seem to have of them.