A different Britain? 40 years of changing social attitudes

Findings from British Social Attitudes 40

When the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) started the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 1983, one of its key aims was to chart and analyse long-term trends in public opinion. In so doing, it was argued, the survey would fill an important gap in the repertoire of public opinion research. Most opinion polling focuses on the ever-changing news agenda. Subjects are covered when they are topical and then dropped when they are not. However, measuring long-term change requires that the same questions be asked repeatedly over a period of years. From BSA’s inception, the survey has endeavoured to repeat questions it has asked before, in some instances almost every year, in others on a more occasional basis.

Today’s British Social Attitudes report represents a milestone in reaping the fruits of that strategy. All of the chapters utilise the forty years of data the survey has collected to chart and explain how the climate of British public opinion has – and has not – changed since the mid-1980s. The topics covered in the report include attitudes towards sex and families, the role of women, social class, the responsibilities of government, and poverty and welfare, while there are also analyses of whether the differences of outlook between men and women, and between younger and older people, have changed over time.

One clear theme emerges. On many social issues, such as sexual relations or whether women with young children should go out to work, there has been a long-run secular change trend towards a more liberal climate of opinion. In what might be thought a near-revolution in the country’s cultural outlook and social norms, Britain has increasingly come to believe that what people do in the bedroom, what kinds of family they live in, and how they combine family life and paid work should be up to them. The job of government is to respect and facilitate the decisions they make rather than try and take those decision for them. 

However, when it comes to the economic role of the state, such as how much it should tax and spend or how generous the welfare system should be, public opinion has been cyclical, swinging in one direction or the other in response to changing political and economic circumstance. When taxation and spending go up, the public look for it to be reduced - only then to swing back again when cuts have been implemented. If the economy is in trouble, the public look to the government to take responsibility for solving it, whereas in more benign circumstances it may take a more relaxed view. 

These contrasting trends are illustrated by the results of two overarching question scales that have appeared on nearly every BSA survey since they were first developed and introduced in 1986. The first is a liberal-authoritarian scale. This is based on a series of questions designed to measure whether people believe society should be able to impose its rules, values and norms on its members (an authoritarian outlook) or whether individuals should be able to make their own choices on these matters (a more liberal point of view). People who emerge as relatively liberal on the measure are more likely to express liberal views on specific social issues such as sex, family and gender.

Figure 1 shows the average score on that scale across all respondents for each BSA undertaken between 1986 and the most recent survey, conducted towards the end of 2022. The scale is scored such that 0 represents a very liberal outlook, and 100 a highly authoritarian one.

Figure 1

For many years, there was little change in the average score. In 1986 it was 69, and 25 years later, in 2011, it was again 69. Indeed, in the intervening period only once was it less than 67 or more than 71. However, as Figure 1 illustrates, almost every year since 2011 has witnessed a swing towards a more liberal outlook, such that, in our most recent survey, the scale score stands at 56, 15 points different from just over a decade ago. Britain looks a lot more liberal than it did 40 years ago.

Our second scale measures whether someone is on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’. It is based on a set of questions that ask people about inequality and what the government should do about it. Those on the left are those who believe there is considerable inequality and feel that the government should be taking action to reduce it. Those on the right are inclined to the opposite view – perhaps because they think it is more important for government to create incentives for business to invest and thus grow the economy. As we might anticipate, those who are identified by this measure as being on the left are more inclined to say the government should spend more and should take on a wider range of economic responsibilities.
Figure 2 shows the average score on this scale across all respondents for each year since 1986. Those with a very left-wing outlook are scored 0, while those on the far right have a score of 100.

Figure 2

The picture is one of oscillation up and down. During the later years of the Conservative administration of 1979 to 1997, Britain moved a little to the left; in 1986 the average score across respondents was 38, while by 1995 it had slipped to 34. In contrast, the years of the New Labour government between 1997 and 2010 witnessed a bit of a swing to the right; by 2004 the scale score had reached 42, and it was still as high as 41 in 2010. But following the return of the Conservatives to power, by 2013 the score stood at 38 again. Meanwhile, as can be seen from the far right-hand of Figure 2, now opinion has moved further leftwards and stands at 33, similar to the position in 1995.

Many people’s personal lives are very different now from those that were commonplace in the 1980s, including their relationships, their families, and their involvement in the world of work. These changes in behaviour have been accompanied by changes in attitudes that make the cultural norms of the 1980s seem a world away. In contrast, during the last four decades, government has sometimes got a little bigger, sometimes a little smaller - but without ever changing decisively in one direction or the other. And, equally, sometimes attitudes have moved a little to the left, sometimes a little to the right. Perhaps that is a debate that will never reach any kind of conclusion?