Liz Truss says that she’s prepared to be unpopular. She’d better be. The British public is moving further to the left on how the economy should be run, just as the Prime Minister is trying to drag it rightwards.
Appetite for government intervention in the economy is rising, as is concern about inequality, and enthusiasm for redistribution of income from the better-off to the poorer, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
A majority of the British public (52 per cent), polled in Autumn 2021, said the government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits. The publication of the survey comes just as Truss and her government are announcing a plan to cut taxes, including reversing the National Insurance rise (most benefiting higher earners), and reduce benefits (punishing part-time workers on low incomes).
The shift is a recent one: the proportion of Brits who want the government to “increase taxes and spend more” has been overtaking those who want it to “keep taxes and spending at the same level as now” since 2016. A majority of Brits have chosen the former since 2017.
The proportion who want to reduce taxes and decrease public spending has remained stubbornly low since records began, while the other two stances tend to swing in relation to the government of the day. While the Conservative government of the Nineties worked to curb spending, the public wanted to increase it; during Labour’s time in power in the 2000s the public swung the other way.
The public majority in the latest survey for raising taxation and spending, despite the huge amount of government expenditure during the pandemic, may well show a significant shift in priorities in the face of the cost-of-living crisis. Even 46 per cent of Conservative supporters said the government should increase taxes and spending, as did 61 per cent of Labour supporters.
The proportion of Brits who said the government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off was at its highest level since 1994, at almost half (49 per cent). This sentiment has risen fast, up ten percentage points since pre-pandemic 2019. Only around a quarter of those surveyed (27 per cent) disagreed.
The Prime Minister, however, is explicitly turning away from the redistribution of wealth. In an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on 4 September, she said that she believed it was wrong “to look at everything through the lens of redistribution”.
General recognition of inequality is also rising. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of the British public agreed that ordinary working people did not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, also up ten percentage points since 2019. The last time this sentiment reached such a high level was 1991.
Sixty-six per cent of respondents also agreed that there was “one law for the rich and one for the poor”, a sentiment that spiked during the pandemic. In particular, the number of Brits who strongly agreed with the statement rose by ten percentage points between autumn 2019 and autumn 2020. There were reports at this time of "cronyism" in the awarding of government Covid-19 contracts, and it was a few months after Dominic Cummings's lockdown trip to Barnard Castle.
Those saying they strongly agreed jumped a further four percentage points in the year to autumn 2021, a few weeks before the first reports of the “partygate” scandal – in which Boris Johnson and others in Downing Street were revealed to have broken lockdown rules – emerged.
Among some politicians there is a theory that large-scale government intervention and spending during the pandemic has heightened the taste for it among the general public. Its impact, and the cost-of-living crisis that followed, is also exposing the inequality in British society.
Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, are attempting to signal a move in the opposite direction (though their enormous energy bill bailout is, in reality, a continuation of the interventionist pandemic era). Their signals, such as lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses and rescuing rich companies from planned tax rises, however, could turn off a public less and less inclined to accept trickle-down economics.
[See also: Why Britain is vulnerable to high interest rates]