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?

State of the World is a product of concern for ecology. Being against misuse of resources today is like being against sin in the Victorian era: an easy position if you don’t start to think critically. The book contains a valuable warning on soil erosion, and an interesting discussion of savings from recycling. There is also a less sophisticated display of the dangers of uncontrolled population growth: the book praises the efforts of world governments to get people to accept sterilisations and other drastic limitation techniques, but does not discuss what features in developed societies have led to reduced fertility, and whether these cannot be borrowed by the Third World. It might be better, particularly because of other long-term advantages, to bribe society to family limitation by good child health care and old-age pensions, rather than to bribe individuals by tax and housing privileges or transistors. There is an attempt to work out the relative economics of nuclear and other sources of power, but no recognition that these vary according to national resources, and, more seriously, no attempt to grapple with the problems raised by the changing cost of borrowing for capital-intensive development. The good intentions of the book are not enough.

By confining themselves to Britain, the rest of the books have a better chance of geting somewhere, but there are still difficulties. Geography certainly plays a part in the variety of our national experience, but geography as expressed in the large regions used by Tony Osman is far too crude an indicator. British Social Attitudes breaks down responses by age, by sex, by the great white or blue-collar divide, by political or religious affiliation, but not by social class, colour or geographic setting. The State of the Nation is concerned with the gulf between rich and poor, but its main concern is where power and influence lie. It is weakened by giving no international comparisons. ‘Britain is an armed camp, crammed with army, navy and air bases,’ it proclaims, but with our armed forces numbering only a third of a million, even the unnumbered American contingents do not make this very convincing. Where do we stand internationally in the percentage of our Gross National Product devoted to war? I recall a conversation with an Eastern European about Communist emphasis on the Greenham Common demonstrations: ‘If I wished to demonstrate against a Russian base I wouldn’t know where to find one,’ he said. I suspect that it is not military activity which distinguishes us from other countries and in a bad way, but the numbers we have in prison. Over 50,000 people are there, and some 11 per cent have not yet been tried. But vehemence here or on any other issue needs comparisons – sometimes with other nations, sometimes, as Social Trends manages to provide in a limited way, with our own past.

There is a tendency for these books to disappear into silence where there are difficulties over obtaining information. Northern Ireland and Scotland seem to be expendable parts of the United Kingdom, particularly to Tony Osman. Women are of little interest on the employment front: Social Trends at intervals leaves them out altogether, and The State of the Nation, girning about the move away from industrial production to services, a move which it fails to see as common to the developed economies, points out that this means a loss of full-time jobs for men and a gain in part-time ones for women. In so far as jobs have to be within reach, this may mean that some men are not in a place to take them, but otherwise I find this a disappointingly prejudiced remark, in conflict with the stress elsewhere in the book on the need to meet specific feminine needs. It also shows an insensitivity to the basic fact that even half a job, of an unprestigious kind, is in every way to be preferred to long-term unemployment. The Facts of Everyday Life gives us a political map based on the 1979 Election: is there nothing more recent available, or is this another feature – like its belief that the school-leaving age is 15 – which suggests that the book has been a long time in the oven?

There are important political messages in these books. This is particularly brought out by British Social Attitudes. The replies to its questions show a remarkable gulf, on most important issues, between the opinions of the citizenry of all political allegiances and those of the Government. The nation is strongly in favour of keeping up taxation so as not to cut social services, and five times as many people would rather see taxes rise than would see them fall. A sizeable group of Conservative partisans and the marked majority among other parties think that our ally the United States is as great a menace to peace as is the Soviet Union, and a noticeable minority thinks it is a greater one. All but 14 per cent of the nation wishes to see no weakening of the independence of local government from central power, and three-quarters think that it is the local authority, not the central government, that should decide the level of rates. Altogether it shows a society capable of great unity of opinion. Besides this lack of enthusiasm for the aims of our present government, the nation also exhibits a growing concern over the environment, a care for amenity, and hostility to pollution. This is particularly marked among younger women. But, says the book, these opinions are not yet clarified or organised enough to become the basis of a ‘green’ political party or programme.

The book also shows that we are becoming less deferential. In many matters opinion comes directly from practical experience or the sense of a real threat. Two-thirds of the nation think that our income range is too wide, and slightly more that the reduction of unemployment should be the Government’s first priority. Of those unemployed, over half report that it is difficult or very difficult to manage on the income available, and if we add to this group those who belong in that half of the population which, according to Social Trends, has to manage on a quarter of the national income, we have a large number of have-nots who may one day become demanders. True, the mass organisations for expression and leverage which have been built up in this country are confined to those in work, and many of the potential demand base are not in work. But this feature may not hold good indefinitely. With over four million of unemployed and our pensioners in poverty we may find that what little deference there is left does not last long, and with a nation so conspicuously out of sympathy with the ethos of the Government there is potential trouble. Our government would be wise to remember that the poor now include people with organising skill and experience.

This large section of have-nots – as Social Trends shows, little changed in scale since 1949 – lends support to the emphasis on inequality expressed by The State of the Nation. But the authors are more concerned with power and influence than with incomes. They set out elaborately some marital and neighbourhood links between wealth, politics and the media, drawn from a sample in Who’s Who, which do not seem of great significance, and they draw a map revealing the large Highland estates owned by some individuals without apparently realising that 70 thousand acres of hill and peat moss may not be very profitable investments. The book is more convincing on the concentrations of business power in London, a feature well established since the mid-19th century, and on the well-known system of media chains of ownership. ‘Wealth is very unevenly distributed,’ it states, modifying the remark with the statement that it is difficult to measure, and with a pictorial representation of the declining share of direct taxation borne by wealth since 1908. It is true that old-fashioned death duties, at least in their early days, were better at breaking up concentrations of wealth than is Capital Transfer Tax, but the indicator the authors have chosen is affected much more by the 20th-century enhancement of income tax than by changes in capital taxation. Social Trends affords a much more representative picture of the state of acknowledged wealth between groups, and one can see the large part of national wealth frozen in pension rights of the poor or house property of the middle class. That the share of the rich in wealth fell in the early 1970s was largely due, it states, to the slump on the Stock Exchange. Otherwise it has been pretty constant. Behind these issues, the level of inequality and its importance, lies a difficult problem of policy. The rich are either very good at making and holding onto money, or can afford to employ people who are. What level of coercion are we as a whole prepared to put up with to limit the effectiveness of these activities?

A similar basic problem lies behind the differentials in class and geography shown by health statistics. Some of these may already be on the way out. The Facts of Everyday Life reveals the special risks borne by Lancashire in chest diseases. Probably this is just a hangover from the days before Clean Air regulations, when Manchester in particular took pride in not calling anything a fog if you could see your shoes. Pollution in the lungs kills in a relatively leisurely way. The State of the Nation provides a more sophisticated map, only for England and Wales, of the pattern of what it considers unnecessary deaths. Here again old industrial areas stand out. But the caption of the map, ‘Deaths from curable illness’, indicates failure to appreciate the difficulties of the subject. It would be more honest to say ‘treatable’, for the notes show that among the conditions assessed are hypertension, perinatal mortality, asthma, rheumatic heart disease and Hodgkin’s disease. Some things can be cured, some alleviated, some prevented, and some of the treatments are at the cost of side-effects. This book shows that women use the National Health Service more than men, but Social Trends shows that, except for longer survival into old age, they cost it less. Social Trends also shows an increasing use of dentists and an improvement in the teeth of children since the Sixties, but have we reduced the proportion of the population totally edentate, usually of choice, rumoured to be 44 per cent in Scotland? Health matters link up with diets and life-styles. These can be altered, and certainly change over time. But can we expect a drastic alteration of either from a people trying to piece together an acceptable way of life, in touch with past patterns, on the niggardliness of state allowances? It is fair to look at our national health achievement and see it as poor, and our public education on health as almost non-existent. We might start to collect better statistics – for instance, by collecting occupational mortality figures for women as well as for men. But we are not going to change things much in a hurry and certainly not by coercion.

The most interesting area of all the four British-based books is crime. None of their statistics face the inherent problems of all crime statistics which make them notoriously the most unreliable of all official figures: that what we know about crime comes from that part which is reported. The figures are affected by changes in formal definitions, and by informal actions. Some sexual irregularities, even those labelled illegal, will be ignored and some picked on, depending on decisions by those in local power. Reporting of crime depends on public confidence in the Police and in the penal system, and on the convention of local police forces; and the coherence of the record depends on the reliability and honesty of the Police. There are sociologists who take refuge in dogma and declare that because popular belief in a crime wave is bound to enhance the reporting of crimes, there can be no such thing as a real crime wave. That line of reasoning is unnecessary, but it reminds one of the problems. Tony Osman here discusses whether high numbers of police produce low crime levels, or whether high crime levels lead to a more intense police presence. But in noticing that on the whole high policing tends to coincide with high crime figures, he does not consider whether what he is observing is that a large police force may simply be putting on record a large proportion of crime.

It’s a pity, though, that none of these books go really far back for their figures. Even interwar, crime statistics were low – at the beginning of the century, very low. The rise of this century is on such a scale that some considerable part of it must be real. What was there about society two or three generations back that kept crime low: less life on the street, more poverty, less social mobility, more ostensible religion, more social deference, less prevalent images of the affluent life? That crime is a complex product of society is inescapable. Its simplest dimension is that it is almost all male. To compare diagrams of the offences of the two sexes Social Trends has to inflate the female figures five times. Is it that women take their deviancy out in mental ill-ness instead?

Among men crime is common enough for there to be some doubt about the use of the word ‘deviancy’. A recent study of an age-group sample showed that 35 per cent of it had been convicted of crime before the age of 30. If we allow for those that got away with it, it may well be that the law-abiding citizen has ceased to be the norm. British Social Attitudes, in its enquiry into our concepts of right and wrong, claims that people have clear gradations of different types of immoral actions, but also that ‘most people are willing to admit the possibility that they themselves might consider some forms of fiddling.’ Fiddling indeed, when there are nearly four million notifiable offences recorded every year! Clearly we think of ourselves as a lot more law-abiding than we are.

This is not the only area where there is a gulf between our theories and our actions. British Social Attitudes shows that many married men feel that men should share in domestic duties, though many draw the line at the washing and ironing. In practice, much less equality exists. But the sentiment may count as one of the many signs that the structure and life of our family units are changing. Marriage is popular – often contracted at a young age, and often not very durable. But in spite of the present ease of entering and leaving wedlock, 16 per cent of births, 99,000 children a year, are illegitimate. Yet only three and a half thousand of these come on the adoption market. A lot of family life is going on which does not conform to old stereotypes of the nuclear family. Much of it may involve illegitimate children living with their parents, for the number of cohabiting but unmarried couples is nearly half that of married pairs. The British family is not what it used to be, and since it is our universal unit of aggregation, the counter to anarchy, this is interesting and important. The family theme, indicated in these books but not fully explained, is worth a book on its own.