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British Social Attitudes after Brexit and COVID-19

21 October 2021

In the wake of a momentous year, this year’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), examines how two historic events – the arrival of the pandemic and the delivery of Brexit – are shaping public attitudes in Britain.

The report finds that in the wake of the pandemic more people:

  • think that society is unequal
  • value flexibility at work
  • question the role of law and conformity.

Not all of the shifts, however, are new. In many instances, the pandemic has simply seen existing trends continue.

Meanwhile, the report also shows that following the delivery of Brexit:

  • trust in government has increased
  • the division between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ remains in place.

This year’s report is based on two online surveys – a special one in July 2020 and a regular BSA survey undertaken towards the end of the year.

Increased Concern about Inequality

The debate sparked off by the pandemic about inequality in Britain appears to have had an impact on public attitudes.

In the latest BSA survey, nearly two-thirds (64%) agreed that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’. This is up from 57% in 2019 and higher than in any year since 1998.

The same proportion (64%) agreed that there is ‘one law for the rich and one for the poor’, up from 56% in 2019. The figure has not been higher than this at any time since 1997.

However, this mood has seemingly not translated into markedly increased support for redistribution. Although the proportion agreeing with the statement that ‘the government should redistribute income and wealth from the better–off to the less well-off’ rose in our two 2020 surveys from 39% in 2019 to 42% and then to 46%, the proportion disagreeing also increased, from 27% to 30%.

A Continued More Favourable Attitude towards the Unemployed

The pandemic suddenly put a lot of people’s jobs in apparent jeopardy – albeit mitigated by the government’s ‘furlough’ scheme.

Attitudes towards the unemployed had already become more liberal before the pandemic started – and this shift was maintained.

The proportion who agreed that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one had already fallen from 69% in 2005 to 51% in 2019. In our most recent survey it stood at 42%, lower than at any time since 1996.

In 2007, just 7% named benefits for the unemployed as one of their top two priorities for extra government spending. By 2018 this had risen to 15%, while in our most recent survey it was chosen by 24%.

Prior to the pandemic there had already been a sharp fall – from 77% in 2011 to 50% in 2019 – in the proportion who said that benefits for the unemployed were too high and discouraged people from finding a job, rather than felt that they were too low and caused hardship. In the latest survey the figure is 45% – the first time since 2000 that this has been the less popular of the two views.

More Support for Flexibility at Work

Apart from the threat of unemployment, many people who still had a job were suddenly forced by the pandemic to work from home. This seems to have encouraged more people to back a flexible approach to work.

68% now think employers should allow someone who has been ill to undertake a phased return to work, compared with 55% in 2019. 59% say employers should allow an employee with a health condition to work from home, up from 51% pre-pandemic.

Meanwhile, more people than ever think that paid work is ‘very good’ for people’s health. 41% say that paid work is ‘very good’ for people’s mental health, an increase from 26% before the pandemic. 27% now think that paid work is ‘very good’ for people’s physical health, up from 17% before the pandemic.

Yet those aged 18-24 are by some margin the least likely to say work is ‘very good’ for people’s health. For example, around a quarter (23%) of them think working is ‘very good’ for mental health, compared with 41% of all adults and as many as half (51%) of over 60s.

A More Questioning Outlook

During the pandemic, the law intervened in our social and personal lives to an unprecedented extent. The experience seems to have furthered an existing trend towards a more questioning attitude towards the law and conformity.

The proportion who agree that ‘schools should teach children to obey authority’ had already fallen from 83% in 2011 to 72% in 2019. In our most recent survey only 62% backed this view, a record low since BSA first asked the question in 1986.

In 2019, just 23% disagreed that ‘the law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong’. The figure stood at 32% and 31% in our two 2020 surveys.

In our most recent survey, just 52% agreed that ‘young people do not have respect for traditional British values’. This compares with 60% in 2019, and 77% in 2007 – another record low.

Brexit, the Pandemic, and Trust in Government

The stalemate over Brexit prior to the 2019 election had undermined trust and confidence in how Britain was being governed. Yet during the pandemic the government needed people’s trust as it tried to persuade them to change their behaviour.

Trust and confidence in government rose during 2020. 23% now say they trust government to put the needs of the nation above the interests of their party, the highest figure recorded since 2007 and an increase from a record low of 15% in 2019.

In our latest survey, 32% said that the present system of governing in Britain could not be improved or at least only in small ways, up from a record low of 20% in 2019.

However, the increase in trust and confidence has largely been confined to those who voted for Brexit – which had been implemented just before the pandemic broke out.

31% of those who voted Leave in 2016 now say that that they trust government to put the national interest first, up from just 12% in 2019. In contrast, only 17% of Remain voters express the same view, an increase of just three points in 2019 (14%).

Similarly, 46% of Leave voters say that the system of governing Britain needs little or no improvement, compared with 17% in 2019. Only 24% of Remain voters feel the same way, up just four points on the 20% recorded in 2019.

This is the first time that people who are sceptical about Europe have been more likely than those with a more favourable attitude towards the EU to express trust and confidence in government.

Gillian Prior, Deputy Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research, said: “Following the pandemic, people in Britain increasingly demand working arrangements that support the health and wellbeing of employees. In the face of rising income insecurity, we now connect paid work more strongly than ever with health and wellbeing.

At the same time as we have become more likely to view paid work as important for our mental and physical health, we’ve also become more concerned about inequality, with support for additional unemployment benefits growing during the crisis.”

Sir John Curtice, Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “Faced with COVID-19 restrictions and increased economic insecurity, people in Britain have adopted a more liberal attitude to authority, while concern about inequality has grown. However, despite the impact of the pandemic on our lives, these trends do not signify a new direction in the public mood. Rather, in many ways the pandemic has reinforced opinions and attitudes that had already become increasingly common in Britain in recent years.In many respects it looks as though the landscape of public opinion in the post-pandemic world may well look a relatively familiar one.”

However, the delivery of Brexit has restored trust and confidence in government to levels not seen since the EU referendum. Yet this response has been a highly partisan one – largely confined to those who voted for Brexit. As a result, Britain is left divided between one half of the country who now feel better about how they are being governed and another half who, relatively at least, are as unhappy as they have ever been.”

ENDS

For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel, Media and Communications Officer
National Centre for Social Research
t: 0207 549 9550, m: 07734 960 071, e: oliver.paynel@natcen.ac.uk

Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications
National Centre for Social Research
t: 0207 549 8504, e: katie.crabb@natcen.ac.uk

Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better informed society through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

2. British Social Attitudes: the 38th Report will be published on 21st October 2021 and freely available at www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk. The editors are Elizabeth Clery, John Curtice, Sarah Frankenburg, Hannah Morgan and Susan Reid. The views expressed in the report and press release are those of the report authors and editors alone.

3. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey has been conducted annually since 1983. Each year the survey asks around 3,000 people what it's like to live in Britain and what they think about how Britain is run. Since 1983 more than 100,000 people have taken part in the survey.

4. The 2020 BSA survey consisted of 3964 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain and was conducted between October and December 2020. An additional survey with 2413 people was conducted in July 2020 with a random sample of previous British Social Attitudes survey respondents, via NatCen’s online and telephone panel.

5. Previously conducted face-to-face by interviewers, this year’s BSA survey was completed online by a sample of respondents who were invited at random by post. This change brings a risk that differences in attitudes between BSA 2020 and earlier years may be a consequence of the change of methodology. However, the 2020 data have been carefully weighted to ensure this risk has been minimised. For more information visit www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk.