Britain ‘more Thatcherite than the 80s’? Our Survey Says…

December 13, 2010


The 2010 British Social Attitudes survey is out today and, according to the Guardian, it makes sobering reading for left-inclined Britons. Under the headline “Britain ‘More Thatcherite than the 80s‘” the paper reports that the survey found that “Sympathy towards benefit claimants has evaporated, along with support for redistributive tax and spend policies” while, on the other hand, “public satisfaction with health and education [has] improved dramatically.”

As the paper reports, in 1991, “58% thought the government should spend more on benefits” but, “By 2009 that had more than halved to 27%” while only 36 percent said that they favoured “policies to redistribute income from rich to poor” compared with 51 percent in 1989. Nonetheless, “78% of people [are] now saying the income gap between rich and poor is too large” raising questions about how accurately the survey managed to penetrate the minds of its respondents.

As Penny Young, chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research (which funded the study) puts it, “The survey points to a nation at political crossroads between left and right” but it points to a deeper confusion, and lack of public confidence in policies to redress massive economic inequalities. Obviously, when 78 percent of people say that the gap between rich and poor is “too large” this does not imply a lack of desire for redistribution. Still less does it suggest that Britain is “more Thatcherite than the 80s.” A strange way to frame the issue, as far as I can see.

Looking at the website of the NCSR, the picture appears somewhat different. In its section entitled “Do we still care about inequality?” the report shows that concern about inequality has grown massively in recent years. 73 percent now say that differences in income are “too large”, up from 63 percent in 2004. In a typically un-Thatcherite detail it finds that “60 percent agree that working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” a figure that has risen from 53 percent in 2004. Moreover, “only 27 percent” say that “large differences in people’s incomes are necessary for Britain’s prosperity” – a stunning rebuke to neoliberal economics, which posits a trickle-down theory in which “wealth creators” generate growth to support the less dynamic masses.

Again, in a startling departure from Thatcherite thinking, the survey finds that a healthy 57 percent believe that “it is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes.” Why did the Guardian not lead with such statistics, which show a general distaste for neoliberal policies? How on earth are we “more Thatcherite than the 80s”?

Thatcher would have ripped her own eyes out before allowing a minimum wage to be introduced, yet the survey finds that 54 percent of people want the minimum wage to be increased. An overwhelming majority reject any suggestion that Britain is meritocratic as well. 68 percent say that “people have higher incomes than others because they are born to rich parents…”

There is also an interesting discrepancy between the Guardian’s reporting that people seem less sympathetic towards the poor and welfare claimants, and other findings which show “an eight point increase since 2008 in the proportion who feel unemployment benefits are too low” while fewer people now see welfare claimants as “undeserving.” Economic crisis has dented the legitimacy of Blairite and Thatcherite ideas, yet not according to the Guardian’s reporting.

Another striking result of the crisis has been the collapse in confidence in the corporate world. During Thatcher’s heyday, the banks were generally esteemed. 90 percent saw them as “well run” in 1983. Only 19 percent agree nowadays. And a surprisingly large percentage (41 percent) favour nationalisation of “major industries” – while a presumably larger share would back public ownership of the banks.

Despite all of these findings, the NCSR argues that the electorate has shifted sharply to the right since 1997, meaning that “the electorate were nearly as ‘right wing’ in 2009 as 1979” while “the public are now less supportive of ‘big government’ than at any time since the late 1970s.”

This headline grabbing judgement is not really born out by the results of the survey, which shows an enduring and rising concern about income inequality and a desire that the government act to resolve it. It offers ambiguous evidence of public “hardening” over benefits, with signs that the momentum may be shifting towards renewed sympathy and, with the banks now disgraced, a new and popular scepticism over capitalism.

The term “big government” is also fuzzy. It is not used in questioning respondents and is, the survey should admit, an ideologically loaded term. Given the widespread hatred of politicians due to corruption (and the wars of Blair’s tenure) it is to be expected that the public aren’t keen to vest their money and trust in the MPs and ministers who they now see as basically criminal. On the contrary, there is a latent desire for public action to shape social and economic outcomes. The confusion is created by the lack of a democratic mandate to do so.

Despite this, the survey is doubtless correct to see the New Labour era as one of rightward drift. The discourse of politicians and the media has been relentlessly neoliberal and narrowly pitched. The space afforded to dissent (which would have been absolutely mainstream in 1991. apparently) was minimal. We shouldn’t be surprised that people have internalised the thoughts of the media and politicians. We should be heartened by the many signs that this process has reached definite limits.


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