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26 January 2010

What do the British really think about society?

A breakdown of results of the British Social Attitudes Survey

By Samira Shackle

The British Social Attitudes Survey, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, was published today. Much of the press coverage points to an apparent duality in the results: for the first time in 20 years, a majority of people identify themselves as Conservatives, yet the public is more tolerant and socially liberal.

Here is a breakdown of the most interesting findings:

A nation of Conservatives?

Thirty-two per cent of people identified themselves as Conservative, while 27 per cent identified with Labour. This reverses the findings of the survey a year earlier, when 25 per cent identified as Conservative and 34 per cent with Labour. This is the first time the Tories have been in the lead since the 1989 survey.

Public spending

The change is certainly reflected in opinions on public spending: 39 per cent of people supported increased taxes and spending on health and education — the lowest level since 1984, and down from 63 per cent in 2002. Just 38 per cent thought that the government should redistribute income from the wealthy to the poor, down from 51 per cent in 1994.

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The electorate’s views appear to have been shaped by the centrist legacy of New Labour, with the largest majority — 50 per cent — believing that spending and taxation levels should stay as they are. A decade of Labour government has, paradoxically, pushed public opinion to the right.

Political disillusionment

The widespread disillusionment with the political system was reflected in the survey. Fifty-six per cent of those questioned thought it was “everyone’s duty to vote”, down from 68 per cent in 1991. Among the under-35s, the number fell further to 41 per cent.

Thirty-two per cent of people said they had “not much interest” or “no interest” in politics, while 18 per cent said that it is not really worth voting (up from 12 per cent in 2005).

Social attitudes

Thirty-six per cent of people thought homosexual acts were “always or mostly wrong”, down from 62 per cent in 1983. A larger proportion of people — 39 per cent — felt it was “not wrong at all”. This represents a huge leap, up from just 14 per cent in 1989.

There was also evidence that attitudes to the family are relaxing. Forty-five per cent said it made “no difference” whether a child’s parents were married or just living together, up from 38 per cent in 1998. Thirty-eight per cent of Britons still disapprove of mothers working full-time when they have young children. This changes when children reach school age; 52 per cent think a lone mother with a school-aged child has a “special duty” to work to support her child, up from 44 per cent in 1998.

Drugs and cigarettes

There was evidence here that government policy has had some effect. Views on cannabis have hardened, probably as a result of raised awareness of its risks: 58 per cent felt it should be illegal, compared with just 46 per cent in 2001.

Support for the smoking ban has also grown, despite fears of a backlash. In Scotland, where the measure was first introduced, its popularity has doubled since 2004, when it stood at 25 per cent. Fifty-three per cent now support it.

 

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