British Social Attitudes in an era of crisis
What are the public’s expectations of taxation and welfare spending? Is Britain united or divided about how it should be governed? Might ‘culture wars’ rekindle the Brexit divide? How might differences in values across England’s regions affect the electoral fortunes of the major political parties? What do people say about the pressures facing the NHS?
Our survey assesses where the public stands on the formidable challenges that politicians and policymakers will have to continue to address after the country emerges from a period of national mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Taxation, welfare and inequality
The public will face the ‘cost of living crisis’ with as much appetite for government intervention in the economy as it had during the pandemic. Despite the marked increase in public expenditure during the pandemic, support for increased taxation and spending is relatively high, even among Conservative supporters.
Concern about inequality has also increased since the pandemic, with more people saying government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off.
A majority of the British public (52%) in our latest survey say government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits at the end of 2021, similar to the 50% recorded in 2020 and the pre-pandemic figure of 53% in 2019.
As many as 46% of Conservative supporters and 61% of Labour supporters say government should increase taxes and spending.
Almost half (49%) now agree government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, up ten percentage points from 2019, while only around a quarter (27%) disagree.
Two-thirds (67%) now agree that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, also up ten percentage points since 2019.
Growing constitutional challenges
For the first time in the survey’s history, more people favour introducing proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons than keeping the voting system as it is. This is largely the result of an increase in backing among Labour supporters.
In both Scotland and Northern Ireland party support has become more polarised around the constitutional question.
51% are in favour of electoral reform while 44% would prefer to keep the voting system for elections to the House of Commons as it is.
For the first time a majority of Labour supporters (61%) now favours electing MPs using proportional representation, up from 27% in 2011. 69% of Liberal Democrats, but only 29% of Conservatives, favour electoral reform.
In Scotland, 82% of SNP supporters now back Scottish independence, compared with only 5% of Conservative supporters. The gap between supporters of the two parties on this issue has grown from 46 percentage points in 2012 to 77 percentage points today.
While 94% of DUP supporters support Northern Ireland being part of the UK, today just one in ten (10%) Sinn Féin supporters take that view - down from 37% in 2010. The gap between supporters of the two parties on this issue has grown from 57 percentage points in 2010 to 84 percentage points today.
Despite regional inequalities highlighted by the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda we find relatively few differences in economic values between the North and South of England. This may create opportunities for the Conservatives to gain further ground on the traditional support Labour still enjoys in the North.
Far bigger regional differences in attitudes can now be observed between London and the rest of the country than between North and South. The capital is more pro-welfare and socially liberal, a characteristic that might help Labour to maintain its domination of London politics.
There is no difference between North and South in attitudes towards welfare spending. 37% of people in the North express pro-welfare views compared with 35% in the South.
Just over half of people in both the South (56%) and the North (61%) can be classified as economically left-wing.
Meanwhile as many as 47% of people in London can be classified as pro-welfare, compared with 30%-37% in other English regions.
Around one in three (34%) Londoners can be classified as socially liberal, compared with one in five in the South (20%) and around one in six in the North (17%).
‘Woke’ attitudes and the ‘culture wars’
Amid the rise of debate about ‘culture wars’ in Britain, we find that issues of identity, immigration and equality have the potential to rekindle the Brexit divide.
Yet with the balance of public opinion now mostly tipped in favour of socially liberal views, there is no guarantee that a socially conservative, ‘anti-woke’ stance will appeal to an election-winning number of voters.
Only 17% now say that it is very important for being truly British to have been born in Britain, down from 48% in 1995.
Yet while 79% of social liberals and 65% of Remainers believe migrants have a positive impact on the country’s culture, only 25% of social conservatives and 22% of Leavers express this view.
45% of the public says equal opportunities have not gone far enough for Black and Asian people, compared with 25% in 2000.
However, while as many as three in five (60%) Remainers think that equal opportunities for Black and Asian people have not gone far enough, only around a quarter (23%) of Leavers express that view.
A health service under pressure
Earlier this year, our survey revealed that satisfaction with the health service had fallen sharply in 2021 to its lowest level in 25 years. This new report explores what has happened to levels of satisfaction in more detail.
Long waiting lists stand out in our report as a major barrier to getting care. Yet despite low levels of satisfaction, support for the principles of a free and publicly funded health service remain strong.
Around a quarter (26% in England and 24% in Scotland) say they did not get the medical treatment they needed during the past 12 months due to long waiting lists.
Taking too long to get a GP or hospital appointment is the most common reason for dissatisfaction, cited by two-thirds (65%) of people who say they are dissatisfied with the NHS.
A majority says the NHS should ‘definitely’ be free of charge when you need it (76%), available to everyone (67%), and funded primarily by taxes (54%).
55% of people in Scotland and 51% in England say they would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve the level of health care for everyone.
64% in Scotland and 54% in England say it is unfair that wealthier people can afford better health care.
Gillian Prior, Deputy Chief Executive at NatCen, said: “Our annual survey suggests the public faces the ‘cost of living crisis’ with as much appetite for increased government spending as it had during the pandemic. Recognition of inequalities in Britain is at a level not seen since the 1990s, with people more willing than they were a decade ago for government to redistribute income from the better off to the less well off.”
Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, said: “The findings of our survey certainly suggest why Britain might appear divided, buffeted, and ‘broken’. The health service is widely thought not to be providing the timely service that people need and expect. Support for leaving the UK has grown in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and how Britain should be governed has become much more of a divisive issue. A new gap on attitudes to welfare and social issues has opened between the capital and the rest of the country. And divisions over ‘culture war’ issues could potentially become part of our politics, thereby helping to perpetuate the Brexit divide.
True, the gap in attitudes between the North and the South of England appears to have narrowed, while people still have faith in having a tax-funded NHS that is free at the point of use. But the new government faces a particularly formidable challenge in bringing Britain together.”
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Notes to editors
1. British Social Attitudes (BSA): the 39th Report will be published on 22nd September 2022 at www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk. Advance copies of chapters from the report available on request. The editors are Sarah Butt, Elizabeth Clery and John Curtice. The views expressed in the report are those of the authors and editors alone.
2. The full list of chapters in this year’s report: Taxation, welfare and inequality; Constitutional reform; Culture Wars; Regional differences in values; Environment and climate change; Disabled people at work; NHS and social care; The NHS in Scotland and England.
3. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey has been conducted annually since 1983. Each year the survey asks around people what it's like to live in Britain and what they think about how Britain is run. Since 1983 more than 115,000 people have taken part in the survey.
4. The 2021 BSA survey consisted of 6,250 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain and was conducted between 16 September and 31 October 2021.
5. This year’s BSA survey was completed online by a representative sample of respondents who were invited at random by post. There was an option to be interviewed by phone if preferred. This is the same design as used in the 2020 BSA. Prior to 2020 BSA was a face-to-face survey, but this was changed as a result of the public health measures introduced in the wake of the pandemic.
6. The BSA dataset identifies 11 regions, formerly the Government Office Regions (South East, London, North West, East of England, West Midlands, South West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, North East, Wales and Scotland). For the analysis of regional differences in attitudes, these were divided into four high-level regions: London, the South of England (comprising regions South-East, South-West, and East of England), the Midlands (comprising regions East Midlands and West Midlands) and the North of England (comprising regions Yorkshire and Humber, the North-East, and the North-West).
7. Respondents are classified as identifying with a particular political party on one of three counts: if they consider themselves supporters of that party; closer to it than to others; or more likely to support it in the event of a general election.