BSA 40: Role and responsibilities of government

Have voters attitudes changed in respect to the role and size of government?
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Seats in parliament or commons

Have public expectations changed?

The last forty years have witnessed considerable change in the scope of government activity, in the levels of taxation and spending, and in the scale of defence spending in particular. But while voters may have ideological preferences in respect of the role and size of government, have their attitudes also been affected by the changes that have occurred in the role of government and by the changing circumstances with which government is faced? And in so far that is the case, have voters accepted the changes that have taken place – or have they sometimes reacted against them?

Acceptance of a reduced role for government has been reversed by recent crises

  • By 2006, only 31% thought it was definitely the government’s responsibility to control prices, down from 59% in 1985. Now the figure stands at 68%.
  • In 1985, 45% reckoned it was definitely the government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor. By 2006, only 25% expressed that view.
  • After the financial crash, 41% said the government should definitely reduce income differences and now, after COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, 53% feel that way.

Voters have reacted against changes in overall spending

  • In 1983, only 32% said that taxes should be increased and more spent on health, education and social benefits. But the reduction in spending under the Conservatives saw support rise to 62% by 1997.
  • After increases in spending under Labour, by 2010 only 31% backed more taxation and spending. Then reductions under the Conservatives saw support increase once more to 60% in 2017.
  • But voters have not as yet reacted significantly against the large increases in taxation and spending occasioned by COVID-19; 55% still say taxation and spending should be increased.

The public have noticed the long-term decline in defence spending

  • In 1990, only 8% felt that defence spending should be increased. Now 42% are in favour.
  • Despite considerable controversy at the time, in 1983 60% said that having its own nuclear weapons made Britain a safer place to live. 65% take that view now.
  • Multilateral nuclear disarmament (56%) is more popular than a unilateral approach (23%), though the balance of opinion now is somewhat narrower than in the 1980s.