Martin Pugh on the popularity of the welfare state

  • British Social Attitudes: The 1987 Report edited by Roger Jowell, Sharon Witherspoon and Lindsay Brock
    Gower, 260 pp, £28.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 556 00740 9
  • Educational Opportunity and Social Change in England by Michael Sanderson
    Faber, 164 pp, £3.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 571 14876 X
  • Wealth and Inequality in Britain by W.D. Rubinstein
    Faber, 167 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 13924 8
  • A Property-Owning Democracy? Housing in Britain by M.J. Daunton
    Faber, 148 pp, £3.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 571 14615 5
  • The Government of Space: Town Planning in Modern Society by Alison Ravetz
    Faber, 154 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 14568 X

One of the few growth areas in Britain today is the Thatcher industry. Battalions of journalists, political scientists and ‘contemporary historians’ are busily exploiting the phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ by analysing its origins, meaning and impact. No doubt, from the perspective of the British political élite, cocooned in the hothouse atmosphere of Whitehall-Westminster, it appears a very real thing. But peer below the froth into the minds of ordinary people, and the Thatcher revolution – even after eight and a half years of upheaval – is remarkably difficult to detect. This is the most striking message which emerges from the 1987 Report on British Social Attitudes, issued by Social and Community Planning, an independent institute founded in 1969. One of the great merits of the SCPR survey is that it poses many of the same questions to its sample from one year to the next: as a result, it is able to identify real, if gradual, shifts in popular attitudes, as opposed to the short-term vacillations which are the stuff of most opinion polling and social science.

As their title suggests, SCPR surveys are by no means confined to politics. Food, health and diet, for example, come within the range of the present study. Though registering a continuing change in attitudes in favour of what the experts now consider to be healthy food items, the 1987 survey also identifies those sections of the community whose views are most resistant in terms of class (working), sex (male) and age (over 55). But it shows that there is not always a correlation between attitudes and behaviour: while healthy eating habits seem to be associated with women at all levels, they also increase generally with age. To put it differently, young men are the least healthy eaters. Why is this? Do they have more cash to spend on junk food? Or is the macho British male still gripped by the traditional belief that quiche-eaters are wimps? As more and more schools attempt to wean their pupils onto healthy diets, it will be interesting to see whether the actual behaviour recorded in these surveys catches up with shifts in attitudes.

On the political front, the 1987 survey underlines the endurance of a high – and rising – level of public support for the welfare state in Britain. Nearly half of those questioned supported additional taxation in order to facilitate more spending on health, education and social benefits. Incidentally, the questions were posed in 1986, and one wonders how much stronger this sentiment is likely to be in the subsequent survey. Indeed, for the overwhelming majority, the only perceived choice is between higher taxes, on the one hand, and keeping taxes and expenditure level, on the other. Supporters of tax cuts comprise a derisory 5 per cent. It is important to note that, in terms of such criteria, popular sympathies have moved against Mrs Thatcher during the Eighties. Three elections and relentless propaganda on the part of politicians and the media have apparently failed to alter the centrality of welfare citizenship for most British people.

One can nevertheless detect in the survey a twofold weakness in the opposition parties’ position in this area. First, despite their rhetorical emphasis on unemployment, they have failed to make it a matter of major concern for the electorate: they seem unable to shake the prevailing fatalism towards unemployment and hardship generally which can be attributed, in part, to a prolonged period of perceived economic decline and depression. Second, there exists considerable support for the continuation of private health, education and higher pensions for those able and willing to pay extra for them: even among Labour supporters few show enthusiasm for the abolition of private provision for the wealthy, or for drastic redistributive policies.

The survey found a good deal of sympathy for business and industry, rather than the hostility which is sometimes claimed: but, crucially, it suggests that expectations are both low and still diminishing. When asked about the most important considerations to keep in mind when selecting one’s first employment, the respondents saw job security as by far the most important; and this preference has grown during the Eighties. By contrast, those who gave priority to opportunities for promotion and development have dwindled from a third to under a tenth. The relentless pressure of economic decline during the Eighties has served to make the safe-and-secure Civil Service more highly regarded than ever, and the risks and challenges of industry still more dubious. In short, the 1987 survey finds little or no evidence for the growth of an enterprise culture in Britain.

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