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Explaining the rightward drift

Austerity alone can't account for today's harsher and more individualistic attitudes.

As the NS's George Eaton notes, the latest British Social Attitudes survey -- which reveals increasingly negative attitudes towards benefit claimants and a decreasing support for higher taxes, green policies and redistribution -- makes grim reading for progressives. For Janet Daley, on the other hand, the news is cheering evidence that the centre ground of British politics is "a movable feast" and has moved firmly to the right.

I can't say I am surprised by the findings. But I don't think that the harsher public mood can properly be explained either by the chill winds of austerity freezing up the marrow of compassion or by Daley's preferred answer, "that the theory of public spending as the cure for all social evils has been tested to destruction". The change runs much deeper and has been evident for many years. And while it has created a new problem for the political left, the left rode the wave successfully for more than a decade.

Embracing and even promoting a discourse increasingly hostile towards society's losers and outsiders was a big part of New Labour's electoral strategy. It was Harriet Harman who reduced benefits for single mothers, Jack Straw who removed ancient legal protections for under 14-year-olds accused of serious crimes, and a succession of Labour home secretaries who presided over a doubling of the prison population. It was Labour, not the evil Tories, whose tellingly re-named Department of Work and Pensions introduced tough, contracted-out tests for incapacity benefit claimants.

The Thatcher government of the 1980s may have talked tough but its policies, by today's standards, were at times absurdly soft-hearted. Benefit claimants were indulged, students enjoyed a free education (and grants!), the prime minister herself ruminated on the impossibility of ever privatising the Royal Mail. But that's not because Maggie and Co were closet Lefties, of course. It just goes to show how far the centre of political gravity has indeed shifted during the past three decades.

It's paradoxical, to say the least, that while welfare spending has declined as a percentage of GDP over the past three decades (even while other types of government expenditure rapidly increased under Labour), resentment of welfare claimants has hugely risen.

This can't all be result of political rhetoric. Not unless you assume that the public are uncontemplative and sheeplike, meekly absorbing messages beamed at them by politicians. New Labour wouldn't have tacked so firmly to the right were it not for the fact -- revealed by opinion polls and focus groups -- that such policies and language were popular. Here are some other factors I think may be relevant:

1) The media. Newspapers such as the Mail have painted a persistent picture of work-shy benefit scroungers, typically immigrants, typically living in a four-bedroom council house with the latest in flatscreen TVs, typically claiming incapacity benefit while playing basketball or moonlighting as an exotic dancer. The stereotypes thus created undoubtedly helped to produce an atmosphere of hostility to welfare recipients. Even so, without an undertow of pre-existing public suspicion, the Mail's reports would have had less purchase. As with political rhetoric, the role of the press raises a difficult chicken-and-egg problem.

But it's hardly surprising that when the allegedly left-leaning BBC screens prime-time documentaries about incapacity benefit cheats, people exaggerate the level of welfare fraud -- to the extent of assuming that most if not all claimants are fraudulent.

2) Increased belief in meritocracy. Actual social mobility has not increased -- on many measures it has been reduced -- but there has been a marked decline in both deference and class-consciousness, and a convergence upwards of educational opportunities. Once there was a precipitous divide between the majority who left school at sixteen with few or not qualifications and a small university-educated elite. Now those who leave school "early" are widely assumed to be failures (who can therefore be assumed to bear responsibility for their reduced life-chances).

Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "there is no such thing as society" was widely and wilfully misinterpreted but it did accurately sum up the new individualistic morality: that people make their own luck, and that therefore the situation people found themselves in was to a large extent their own responsibility. If you believe that people's lot in life is largely beyond their control then you may have more sympathy -- and be more willing to support -- those who have fallen on hard times.

3) Less mutual trust and social cohesiveness. Partly this is a consequence of the aforementioned individualism, the growth of single person households and the hollowing-out of traditional communities. But there's also the changing face of the country, the result not only of immigration but of multicultural policies and the emergence of ethnic, religious and even sexual group identities. Because we live in a more "diverse" society people may be less likely to think of their fellow-citizens as people like themselves, and thus more likely to ask themselves, "Why should MY taxes go towards supporting THOSE people?" rather than thinking (as they may once have done), "One day that could be me."

Welfare-friendly societies have usually been fairly cohesive and culturally homogeneous -- like Scandanavia -- while, by contrast, the United States has been (culturally, economically, and geographically) highly diverse. But even the Scandanavian countries are more disparate than they used to be. A notable symptom of this is an increased enthusiasm for welfare cuts.

4) Less religious belief. Today's survey reports a continued decline in levels of religiosity: half the population now claims to have no faith affiliation (and half of those rarely if ever attend services). Younger people are both less religious and have "harsher", more individualistic social attitudes than their elders. While it's dangerous to draw political conclusions from religion (there are, after all, believers of all political persuasions as well as none), faith is positively correlated with feelings of compassion and with lower levels of selfishness. Christians, for example, are encouraged to practise forgiveness. It's striking that a more secular society is also in some ways a harsher and more judgemental one, less willing to overlook past failings or offer second chances. Perhaps it's also more realistic.