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Are we set for greater polarisation between the haves and have-nots?

Posted on 07 December 2011 .
Tags: BSA, British Social Attitudes, social and political attitudes, society

Our 28th British Social Attitudes report is published today.  For the first time, you can get the whole report online, at no cost at all.  We’re very excited to be bringing this rich study to a wider audience.  Stretching back to 1983 (taking in seven elections and five prime ministers), it’s a great source of insight about Britain.

The report arrives at a difficult time: increased economic gloom, and in the wake of the public’s faith in a number of pillars of the establishment stretched to breaking point.  What effect has this had on the British psyche?  Our interviewers have spent an hour in the homes of more than 3,000 people to find out.

There are glimpses of some important shifts. Overall, there are signs that British society is looking increasingly inward: we’re becoming a bit more individualistic, and less likely to look to see government as the solution to society’s problems’.   If we’re right about this trend, there is a risk of increasing polarisation between the haves and have-nots over time.

People continue to think the gap between rich and poor is too wide, but they are not up for redistributing wealth as a result.  Many continue to believe that unemployment benefits are too high, and that they discourage people from finding work. And in a new module on child poverty, while we see real concern, people also believe that more than anything, the root cause of child poverty is poor parenting.  So some tough attitudes on display.

This theme combines with evidence that self-reliance doesn’t equate to a sense of common interest .  In another new module, we see that pretty much everyone accepts the need to build more homes.   But almost half are resistant to new homes in their own area: particularly in the South East (where need is greatest), and particularly among those who already own their own homes. We’re also seeing less willingness to make financial sacrifices to safeguard the environment through higher prices or taxation.  And in an interesting shift, people are less opposed to the better-off paying for health care. (Although we have not seen this shift in Scotland).

In tough times, society could do with more belief in its leaders; but in practice we see democracy under continued pressure. This is particularly evident among the young, less well off, and among ethnic minorities. We’re seeing a long term decline in the belief in the duty to vote; fewer than one half of younger people voted in the last election; and the television debates only really appealed to people already interested in politics.

Why should we care? Because we may see society polarised and weakened as some prove much better equipped at self reliance and self interest than others.  If the government is hoping for the Big Society to solve problems, then we’re only half way there. Self reliance is part of the story: but a strong society requires people to look outwards too.  And it requires people to believe in its leaders.

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