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Three things Europe tells us about ourselves

Posted on 20 October 2017 by Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive .
Tags: British Social Attitudes, Europe, European Social Survey, European Union, immigration, political trust, stats

Today it’s European Statistics Day, which provides a good opportunity to take a look at ourselves in the context of Europe. Using data from the European Social Survey we can explore three of the prevailing narratives of UK politics:

1.       The country is in the midst of a crisis of trust in politics.

2.       As a ‘small island’ we’re instinctively more hostile to immigration.

3.       We’re a right-leaning country but we’ve moved significantly to the left or right in recent years.

1.       Trust in politicians in the UK isn’t especially low. 

Over recent years many key sectors and institutions have faced high profile public criticism, including our political representatives. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some commentators have drawn the conclusion that the UK is facing an unprecedented trust crisis. Some have gone further and have suggested that there is a worldwide crisis in trust that has been building for years. 

Europe-wide data suggests a more nuanced picture. While the data below [1] is from 2014 (the 2016 data will be available shortly) and focused on politicians, it is not clear that the UK is an outlier.

Average trust in politicians (0 = no trust at all, 11 = complete trust)

Trust in pol no title

The UK population’s level of trust in politicians looks relatively stable, particularly when contrasted with marked declines in Spain and Portugal and increases in Norway and Germany.  And while the level of trust we have in our politicians is lower than ideal, we are not an outlier, with countries such as Poland and Portugal showing much lower levels of trust.

By this measure the UK doesn’t perhaps have quite the political trust problem some have suggested. In related work in this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, NatCen colleague Prof. John Curtice concluded that lack of trust, or a sense of ‘anti-politics’ was not a significant driver of people’s EU referendum vote.

2.       We are not as hostile to immigration as you might think 

While large numbers of us want immigration reduced, analysis of ESS data for this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey by Prof. Rob Ford and Kitty Lymperopoulou found that UK attitudes to the economic and cultural impact of immigration fall in the middle of the spectrum across Europe. Where the UK did stand out however was the extent to which we are divided in our views. For example, the divide between young graduates and older school leavers on immigration’s economic impact is the starkest in Europe:

Percentage point difference between graduates aged 45 and under and school-leavers aged 65+ who are positive about economic impact of immigration

Immigration attitudes no title

3.       We are not that ‘right-wing’, nor are we moving dramatically to the left 

Traditionally the UK has been seen as politically to the right of the rest of Europe, perhaps even as a mid-point between Europe and the USA. However, more recently some commentators have identified a marked move to the left amongst the UK public in response to the financial crisis and years of austerity, bringing our views more in line with the rest of the continent. 

ESS asks respondents to place themselves on a left-right scale:

Where people place themselves on a 11 pt left to right scale (0= left, 11= right)

lr scale europe no title

Taking a look at this data (again up to 2014) we find that people in the UK haven’t in the last decade and a half seen themselves as particularly right or left wing. There does however appear to have been a modest shift to the left from 2002 to 2014, so it’s worth taking a closer look at the UK data specifically.

Where people place themselves on a left to right scale 

Left to right scale UK no title

Dividing people’s views into 5 categories [2], we can see that there has been a slight decline since the early 2000s in those identifying as being in the centre of the scale. However, it appears that the right-wing groupings have benefited almost as much as those on the left. This suggests that rather than becoming significantly more left-wing since the early 2000s, we’ve instead become somewhat more polarised. 

This is only a small window into how UK attitudes have changed over the last decade and a half, but hopefully it’s an interesting one. More importantly on European Statistics Day, it shows the importance of looking at national views in a wider context. 



[1] ESS data, analysis by NatCen. Shows the national average trust score of a selection of countries that have participated in each round of the ESS since 2002.

[2] 0-1 = left, 2-3 = centre-left, 4-6 = centre, 7-8 = centre-right, and 9-10 = right

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