British Social Attitudes 34

The National Centre for Social Research’s BSA 34 comes at a time when Britain seems split in two on many of the biggest questions.
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  • Authors:
    Sir John Curtice
    Roger Harding
    Elizabeth Clery
  • Publishing date:
    28 June 2017

A kind-hearted but not soft-hearted country


The National Centre for Social Research’s BSA 34 comes at a time when Britain seems split in two on many of the biggest questions. A close referendum decision to leave the European Union has been followed by a snap UK election resulting in a hung parliament.

Before that, we had a narrow majority UK government itself preceded by another hung parliament. And in Scotland specifically, the country was split by the question of whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Each vote produced an outcome in which the country seemed starkly but often evenly divided.

At each moment there were strident voices on every side and sometimes higher than usual turnout. Fears about political apathy have been displaced by worries about national unity. The results have seen some accuse fellow citizens of ‘betrayal’ or ‘revenge’, of voting with their ‘gut’ not their heads, or of being ‘naive’, ‘stupid’ or ‘selfish’ (Foges, 2017; Perring, 2017; Ridley, 2016; Wilkinson, 2016; Woodward, 2016). One commentator has even asked whether the country is ‘ungovernable’ (De Quetteville, 2017).

Despite all of this, we have seen great moments of national unity, like One Love Manchester and the Great Get Together, but these have sadly too often been in response to acts of terrorism. After moments of togetherness, too many of us are left wondering whether we really know or understand our neighbours and fellow citizens. Overlapping theories now
abound about whether we are seeing a fundamental realignment in previously firm views, trends and dividing lines.

For some, the country is divided into what author David Goodhart calls the ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’; a split evident in the EU vote (Goodhart, 2017). ‘Anywheres’ are the degree-educated geographically mobile who embrace new people and experiences, and define themselves by their achievements. In contrast, ‘somewheres’ have an identity rooted in their hometown and find rapid change, such as that brought on by immigration, unsettling.

Others have drawn parallels with the US and suggested we might be beginning our own ‘culture wars’ (Bagehot, 2017). Here the dividing lines are no longer class or left versus right, but a clash between liberalism and a resurgent conservatism, with the latter angered by
issues like same-sex marriage and a sense of runaway multiculturalism.

Before this, there was the suggestion that this is the age of the ‘open’ versus the ‘closed’: those embracing an open economy and tolerant society versus those looking to lock out competition and change.

For some, however, the splits and trends in society today are still best seen through the lens of economics and class; a lens which contrasts those who are successfully riding
the waves of globalisation and technological change and those increasingly ‘left behind’ by the market, austerity and automation (Doane, 2016). On this view the rising inequality of the late 20th century and the consequences of the financial crash underpin much of the changing political currents we see today.

The stark split in voting behaviour by age in the recent general election2 has also reignited debates about whether we are seeing a clash of generations; contrasting babyboomers
against a ‘jilted generation’ left without secure jobs, good pensions and affordable housing (Howker & Malik, 2010).

Finally, many have picked up a growing feeling of ‘anti-politics’ (for example: Clarke et al., 2016) bridging left and right that encompasses all or part rejection of current politics and parties, scandal-hit institutions, ‘political correctness’, and/or an ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’.

Our conclusion is that none of these theories tells the whole story. Instead, every BSA survey seeks to look beyond the headlines to uncover the deeper attitudes
and trends that shape our country. This year is no different, and we have found that the country, while divided on many questions, does have an underlying state of mind - that of a kind-hearted but not softhearted community.

‘Narratives’ and conclusions about events are now formed rapidly, often before basic information is known and verified. The BSA survey unashamedly takes a slower, more considered approach, rooted in some of the most rigourous social research available.

Key findings

In this year’s report we explore the trends and divides that lie beneath recent events to see how Britain is changing. We do this by examining attitudes to the EU, immigration, a mix of personal issues, benefits and tax, the role of government and civil liberties.

The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a diverse set of trends, some suggesting national unity and others showing important divisions. Together they resist simple dichotomies and conclusions but broadly we find a country that is becoming kinder-hearted but unmistakably not soft-hearted, more socially liberal but very divided on immigration and Brexit.

Kinder: after 7 years of government austerity, public opinion shows signs of moving back in
favour of wanting more tax and spend and greater redistribution of income. We also find that attitudes to benefit recipients are starting to soften and people particularly favour prioritising spending on disabled people.

Not soft-hearted: the public in general continues to take a tough line on the response to threats at home and abroad. The majority want the authorities to be given strong powers to respond to terrorism and crime, and record numbers want defence spending increased.

After pensions being protected from austerity, the public are losing sympathy with the idea that this should be a priority for further spending. 

The public takes a dim view of benefit fraud and tax evasion, with many thinking that exploiting “legal loopholes” is also wrong. Further, more people consider benefit fraud wrong than tax evasion. While the proportion who prioritise more spending on increasing the benefits for disabled people has risen, there is little support for more spending on benefits for the unemployed, perhaps because half of people think the unemployed could find a job if they wanted to.

Socially liberal: the onward march of social liberalism continues with record proportions of people being comfortable with same-sex relationships, pre-marital sex and abortion, among other issues. While younger people are still more liberal on these subjects than older people, the difference is narrowing.

Divided: the country is however clearly divided by age and education on views about the EU and immigration; young degree holders are much more positive about both than older people with no formal qualifications.

See below to download additional chapters from the British Social Attitudes 34 report.