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30 years of British Social Attitudes

Posted on 10 September 2013 .
Tags: BSA30, British Social Attitudes

Today sees the publication of our 30th British Social Attitudes survey. For thirty years our interviewers have been knocking on doors and collecting data on the public’s views on everything from politics and welfare, to sex before marriage, right through to views on the environment. How much have people’s attitudes changed over the last 30 years?

Back in 1983, Thatcher was nearing the end of her first term in office, taking on the unions and facing a fragmented opposition. In 2013, it is the leader of the Labour party who is taking on the Unions. So, have attitudes to politics changed? Essentially, yes - people’s views of political institutions and politicians are now worse than 30 years ago, but there are some interesting wrinkles. People are actually now more likely to say that they’re interested in politics than they were in the early 80s. They are also more likely to feel that they hold sway.

Another parallel between now and then is the state of the economy, with unemployment at 10% in ’83 and hovering around the 8% mark today. The report shows that people’s attitudinal response to the economic climate is very similar now to then. Around 1 in 3 of us still think that the government should increase taxation and spending, just over half of us want government spending to stay the same and those of us who want to cut taxes and reduce spending remains in the minority. What’s more, exactly the same proportion (69%) think that it’s the government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.

And yet despite these similarities, there’s a clear shift in how people think about the benefits of the unemployed. In 1983, one third of the public prioritised benefits for the unemployed for extra spending, while one in ten now do so. Also, where 81% of the public previously believed that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for the unemployed, now just 59% does. So it’s clear that public opinion on overall spending is very similar to the early 80s, but that people now take a harder line on the unemployed. However, as our chapter on welfare shows, this year has seen the first sign of a shift: over the last year, the view that benefits for unemployed people are “too high and discourage work”, has fallen dramatically from a record high of 62%, down to 51%.

Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first (and so far only) female Prime Minister. So, how have attitudes to gender roles evolved since her incumbency? Quite dramatically. In the mid-1980s, about half of us agreed that it was a man’s job to earn money and a woman’s to look after the home and family. Now just one person in eight holds this view. However, there are still some who think working mothers are compromising their children’s wellbeing: 1 in 10 believe a working woman could not establish the same relationship with their child as a woman who stays at home, although this has fallen significantly. Similarly, the proportion of people thinking that pre-school children suffer if their mother works has decreased, and the number who express the view that family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job has fallen, too.

There are many more comparisons to be drawn, as you can see for yourself, between when we first went into field with British Social Attitudes in 1983 and this year’s dataset. And while there are some consistencies–those attitudes deeply entrenched in our national psyche–there have also been fundamental changes in public opinion. Alongside these deep shifts in narrative, other topics provoke more change year-on-year. So check out the data, it tells the story of how Britain has changed in all its wondrous complexity.

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