Attitudes to the welfare state are often thought to have been affected by individualisation. If, it is argued, we see people as free to choose for themselves, we might also expect them to take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. So it follows that people may be less willing to show solidarity with each other through a welfare state that shares the risks of poor health or economic misfortune, and more reluctant to see the state engage in substantial income or wealth redistribution. However, we might also expect to see attitudes in this area respond to other influences, including changes in the economic, political and policy climate.
Attitudes towards welfare and the role of the state are also often thought to be closely linked to a person's class identity. As we noted earlier, unlike religious identities, subjective class identities have not changed over the past 30 years as much as theorists of individualisation often assume, with the majority of people still identifying themselves as working class. This might imply, in contrast to individualisation, a sustained level of support for the welfare state.
Cyclical attitudes to tax and spend
The data show that there have been quite dramatic changes in the public mood, but not consistently in one direction. In some instances, the trend in public opinion has proved to be cyclical. Nowhere is this more obviously true than in the case of attitudes towards taxation and spending.
Every British Social Attitudes survey since the first one in 1983 has asked respondents to say which one of three options they would want government to pick if it had to choose between them:
Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits
Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now
Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits
As the Government spending and welfare chapter shows, the first of these options has in fact never been particularly popular, with no more than nine per cent ever choosing it. Opinion has for the most part simply shifted between keeping taxes and spending as they are and increasing them. In 1983 as many as 54 per cent wished to keep taxes and spending as they were, while only 32 per cent wanted them to increase. The public was in a relatively conservative fiscal mood, in tune it seemed with the rhetoric of the then Conservative government led by Mrs Thatcher. As Figure 0.3 shows, that mood did not last; by 1991 two-thirds (65 per cent) wanted taxes and spending increased, and the figure remained as high as 63 per cent as recently as 2002. However, as the then Labour government oversaw a substantial increase in public spending so the public mood switched back again and, by the time that government lost power in 2010, and with the country facing a serious deficit in its public finances, just 31 per cent wanted taxes and spending to increase (the same level as in 1983). Over half (56 per cent) wanted to keep things as they were. Since then, of course, the coalition government has begun to implement substantial cuts in public expenditure (albeit with no commensurate reduction in taxation), but it is too early to say whether the latest finding - that 34 per cent support increased taxes and spending - means that the tide has now begun to turn.
On this issue, public opinion towards taxation and spending has reacted thermostatically to changes in fiscal trends rather than being shaped by some process of long-term social change or indeed any fixed, class-based view as to what the size of the state should be (Wlezien, 1995). When spending is cut back - perhaps with public services suffering as a result - so the public increasingly wants to see more money spent to alleviate the situation. But then when the spending tap has been turned on for a while, so the public's appetite is sated, satisfaction with institutions such as the NHS increases, and the public mood swings back to the status quo.
Changing views about welfare
But not all attitudes in this area are cyclical. There are also some clear longer-term trends, including some in the direction that individualisation theorists would anticipate. Nowhere is this more obvious than in relation to attitudes to welfare benefits.
One of the most obvious ways in which the state provides collective insurance against economic risk is through unemployment benefits. And, as our Government spending and welfare chapter shows, those benefits are certainly viewed less favourably now than they were 30 years ago. In 1983 nearly half the public (46 per cent) said that unemployment benefits were "too low" and caused "hardship". That figure rose over the next decade, reaching a high of 55 per cent by 1993. Since then, support for this outlook has fallen steadily, and now stands at just 22 per cent. Meanwhile, even though in other respects people's views about the responsibilities of government have not changed very much, the proportion who think it is government's responsibility to "provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed" has fallen from a high of 83 per cent in 1989 to 59 per cent now.
Similar trends are found in people's attitudes towards welfare more generally, with a stark contrast between people's views prior to the mid-1990s and their attitudes since. In 1987 we asked people whether or not they agreed with the proposition "if welfare benefits weren't so generous people would learn to stand on their own two feet", a statement that would seem to encapsulate the idea that individuals should take responsibility for the consequences of their own choices. Then, just 33 per cent agreed with this view, and that figure was unchanged nearly 10 years later, in 1996. But two years after that it rose to 40 per cent, reaching an all-time high of 55 per cent by 2010. In our most recent survey the figure stands at 53 per cent.
Changes to people's perceptions of benefit fraud appear to tell a similar story; now, 81 per cent agree that "large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits", up from 67 per cent in 1987. However, only a minority (37 per cent) go so far as to agree that "most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another", a figure that has changed little since the 1980s. At the same time, support for the statement that the government should spend "more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes" has fallen from 55 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent now (up from an all-time low of 27 per cent in 2009).
While the longer-term trend is clear, it is important to note that there has been a recent (if limited) shift towards a more sympathetic stance on welfare benefits and recipients, likely to be driven by austerity and the experience of cuts to social security. For instance, 51 per cent of people now take the view that benefits for unemployed people are "too high and discourage work", down from 62 per cent in 2011. A similar, but more marked, cyclical upturn in sympathy happened during the recession of the 1990s. But it remains the case that attitudes to the unemployed and the role of government in providing support to them are, across a range of measures, far less supportive now than they were three decades ago - suggesting the public have indeed become less 'collectivist' in their attitudes towards this group.
Do these trends represent the consequences of a process of individualisation? There are a number of reasons to doubt that they do. Firstly, as trends in attitudes to welfare and the NHS illustrate, there is nothing inevitable about the direction in which public attitudes shift; instead, they can ebb and flow in response to government spending priorities and policies. Secondly, as our Social class chapter sets out, people's backgrounds continue to exert a strong influence on their views. Although - as was also the case in 1983 - neither people's subjective nor their objective class identities are strongly linked to how they think about issues such as welfare, more specific economic interests (such as trade union membership or being unemployed) remain key influences on attitudes and values in these areas. Finally, it is notable that there was relatively little change in attitudes towards welfare and redistribution before Labour came to power in 1997, even though the social changes that are thought to give rise to individualisation long pre-date that development. As our Government spending and welfare chapter shows, on many (albeit not all) of these questions the change of attitude has been most marked among Labour identifiers. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that what was primarily responsible for the change of mood was the experience of a New Labour government that did not, openly at least, espouse a more egalitarian society, and often seemed to adopt a relatively critical attitude towards welfare. In short, in this area at least, political developments may have been more important than social change (Curtice, 2010).
When it comes to thinking about how attitudes to welfare might change in the future, it is worth contrasting the trends we have just described with our earlier discussion about attitudes to personal relationships. There we saw clear differences between the generations in their views about 'non-traditional' relationships; a more liberal outlook has steadily become more common during the last three decades as older generations, with their more censorious views, have died out. By contrast, what is striking with regard to welfare is how much the attitudes of all groups shifted during the late 1990s, and the role that relatively short-term policy change and political debate appears to have played in shaping these changes. This opens up the possibility that perhaps in this area at least the pendulum could swing back again in response to different circumstances. After all, the country is now governed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that is pursuing a programme of fiscal austerity; the high rewards received by some such as bankers have been widely criticised; and the Labour Party has sloughed off its New Labour mantle. As well as a modest rise in the proportion saying that the government should spend more on welfare, there have also been small increases in the proportions who feel that "ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation's wealth", and that there is "one law for the rich and one for the poor". While it is clear that Britain appears less concerned with economic inequality than it was 30 years ago, our findings raise doubts about the claim that inexorable long-term social changes are bringing about an unrelenting movement away from support for welfare or a more equal society.
At the same time, the public remains firmly committed to the founding principle of the NHS: a health care system free at the point of use for all. However, support for increased spending on the NHS is currently lower than at other points in the last 30 years, apparently because the increased spending under Labour means that people are less likely to feel the need. So, if the past is any guide, we might expect support for higher taxation and spending to increase as spending remains at best flat in real terms for the NHS (with real cuts in many other areas of government spending). However, views about taxation and spending will also likely be influenced by the public's attitudes towards the reasons for the current economic stagnation and fiscal deficit, and their views about the government's policies in regard to these problems.
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- The difference between the proportions of the population identified as belonging to a religion by the 2011 Census and British Social Attitudes can be partly explained by question wording: the Census asks respondents "What is your religion?" - implying that the respondent has one - while the British Social Attitudes survey asks "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?" The difference may also be due to the response options offered; with the Census listing the major world religions, and British Social Attitudes listing specific denominations; respondents answering the former would be most likely to see this as a question concerned with 'cultural classification' rather than religion (Voas and Bruce, 2004). Finally, the context of the questions is significant, with the Census question following one on ethnicity, arguably causing 'contamination' of responses (ibid.).
- The objective figures represent the proportions in one of the Registrar General's socio-economic groups 1-6.
- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).
- This 1981 figure comes from the World Values Survey as reported in Hall (1999).
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