British Facts

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Social Trends 15 edited by Deo Ramprakash
    HMSO, 208 pp, £19.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 11 620102 9
  • State of the World 1984: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress toward a Sustainable Society by Lester Brown
    Norton, 252 pp, £7.95, December 1984, ISBN 0 393 30176 1
  • The Facts of Everyday Life by Tony Osman
    Faber, 160 pp, £6.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 571 13513 7
  • The State of the Nation: An Atlas of Britain in the Eighties by Stephen Fothergill and Jill Vincent, edited by Michael Kidron
    Heinemann/Pan, 128 pp, £12.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 435 35288 1
  • British Social Attitudes: The 1985 Report edited by Roger Jowell and Sharon Witherspoon
    Gower, 260 pp, £18.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 566 00738 X

These books all set out to tell us about ourselves, and to do it by quantification. Their statements are based on economic statistics, demography, official and unofficial measurements, including the measurement of opinion. Some of their conclusions will surprise, for no one reader can expect to have covered the full range of social activity. Their quality must depend on the quality of the ‘facts’ they elicit. As is well-known to all except the Gradgrinds of this world, facts are difficult, not hard and clear like billiard balls but slippery and elusive objects. Comparative economic statistics depend on the figures used being truly comparable – for instance, with due allowance for changing money values. State of the World, which in many of its tables wisely compares real goods, not money, apparently forgets to reduce for inflation when displaying the oil costs of industrial production. Osman’s Facts of Everyday Life sets out to do everything by maps, and most of these are constructed on the crude basis of ‘regions’. This accounts for one of his more engaging boobs: on the spatial distribution of old-age pensioners in Scotland he remarks: ‘There are few outside the main towns. It would not be sensible for the elderly to be scattered across the rather desolate countryside of Scotland, isolated from help.’ If he had looked below the regional level at the most remote district of all, Sutherland, he would have found that 31 per cent of the population is over 60, and that the crofting townships of that district are almost entirely peopled by oldies. No, it is not sensible for them to be there, but that is where they are. By contrast with this naivety, the care and sophistication with which British Social Attitudes achieves its facts, and supplies answers to carefully designed questions, give confidence not only in the honesty but also in the background knowledge sustaining the report. This, and Social Trends, are the best buys among these books, the first for sophistication, the second for sheer weight of information.

British Social Attitudes is now on its second report, and has had the chance to learn from its predecessor. Social Trends, now on its 15th, is even better placed in that respect, and it carries a very large amount of information, giving, not just a snapshot of the present, but a moving picture of the last ten or twenty years. Sometimes the information is too dense for clarity. The chapter on housing – and how we got into the present mess of subsidising almost everyone’s housing, with special advantages to the rich, is not a simple story – might almost be aimed at blinding the reader with complexity. One of its smoother remarks raises a suspicion of duplicity. On housing benefit and rate rebates we have: ‘The new system was intended to be simpler to run and understand.’ Can this really have been the belief of anyone in the precincts of Whitehall?

Some of the facts, particularly those in the chapters on households and families and on employment, are, however blandly set out, anything but bland. About 160,000 children every year in England and Wales experience the break-up of their parents’ marriage. There are 6.6 million married couples in Britain who are still together, but nearly three million single-parent families, and in most of the latter cases the singleness is produced by divorce, not death. The number of children in care has risen from 72,000 in 1961, when the birth rate was high, to 109,000 in a much smaller child population. Well over a million of those registered as unemployed have been out of work for over a year, and Social Trends also admits that the figure for the unemployed is kept down by cosmetic reclassifications. It points out that unemployed married men are less likely than employed married men to have a wife working. Scattered through the chapters there are accumulations of fact which show that as a society we are not managing some things at all well. Of course this raises the question of whether the facts are facts. Basic demography is secure, if not absolutely so – I write as one missed by the last census. But what about the ‘black economy’? There is a known world of tax evasion, moonlighting, jobs held, particularly by married women, without the official paperwork and payments, legal and illegal fringe benefits, and, at the bottom end, transactions in kind. We do not know if this black area extends to 5 per cent of economic activity, in which case it does not seriously distort the official picture, or to 20 per cent, in which case it does. British Social Attitudes in measuring our moral standards uses as a sample question whether a respondent would be prepared to cheat on VAT for plumbing repairs. The moral ambiguities of the situation are explored, but not the practical one which may well face many: would it be possible to get the job done otherwise?

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