Survey shows Britons hardened by austerity

An annual poll of British attitudes portrays a nation grappling with economic turmoil: tough on immigration, tough on welfare – but tough on the government as well.

Once every year for the last thirty years, a group of pollsters, statisticians and sociologists gather together to measure the UK’s mood. Over three thousand people are questioned on a huge range of issues, from job satisfaction to constitutional reform, to produce an annual snapshot of national opinions. This is the British Social Attitudes Survey, and yesterday its findings for 2011 were released.

Its most important discovery? That depends on which newspaper you pick. The Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph latched onto the section on welfare, in which 62% of people said that unemployment benefits discourage hard work. The right-wing Daily Mail, famous for its hostility to immigration, triumphantly trumpeted the revelation that over half of the country believe migrants are ‘bad for the economy.’

The Guardian and the Independent, meanwhile, only had eyes for the survey’s verdict on austerity. There is broad and growing public support, the left-leaning papers pointed out, for increasing public spending – even at the cost of higher taxes. ‘Bad news for George Osborne’, crowed the Independent’s headline.

Elsewhere there were more worrying signs for the government, with only 28% of people expressing a positive opinion of coalitions. And in the wake of controversial reforms, approval of how the NHS is run has sharply dropped.

This is not a simple drift to the right or the left: the full picture is far more complicated. But on one trend almost all commentators were agreed: Britain is a less sympathetic place today than it was in more prosperous times.

It was not only unemployment benefits for the young and able-bodied that met with public disapproval: today, people are even divided over welfare spending on the elderly and disabled. Immigrants with the skills to contribute to the economy were broadly welcomed by respondents; others, especially those from outside Europe, were shunned.

Hard times

Clearly many British people accept that hard times call for harder hearts: with a troubled economy and a government determined to cut the deficit, generosity would simply be foolish. Old or young, fit or disabled, we must all share the burden. Nobody should suffer serious deprivation, they say; but in a recession, even the vulnerable must settle for less.

But there are some who dissent from this view. Treating those in need with generosity and care is a profound obligation for every society, they say, not just some indulgence reserved for times of plenty. In fact, with fewer jobs and thinner wallets, recessions call for more compassion, not less.

You Decide

  1. Can opinion polls really tell us anything important about ‘social attitudes’?
  2. Which of the attitudes expressed in this year’s survey do you agree with, and which do you oppose? Why?


  1. Write three different headlines that could describe the findings of this survey: one to be run in the conservative press, one for a left-wing blog and one for a neutral newspaper without a political agenda.
  2. Design a survey of your class’s attitudes towards the issues that you think matter in your school. Draw your findings up in a series of attractive graphs.

Some People Say...

“You can prove anything with statistics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does the world really need yet another set of statistics?
It’s hard these days to open a newspaper without being overwhelmed by polls and percentages. But even if it sometimes feels like a data overload, these statistics do make a difference: today, we have a more accurate understanding of social attitudes and circumstances than ever before. When used correctly, statistics can allow governments to formulate better policies; and also to measure their success.
But hasn’t this set of statistics already been used to prove a whole set of different beliefs?
That doesn’t mean the data itself is useless; it just shows how careful we need to be of other people’s interpretations. When you see a statistic in a headline, always think hard about what it really means, and how it might have been manipulated.

Word Watch

Job satisfaction
With unemployment rising, it is unsurprising to discover that most people feel that their jobs have become less secure. But those who do have jobs are more satisfied with them than they were six years ago, as well as being happier with their work-life balance.
Constitutional reform
The government plans to introduce elected police commissioners and give the electorate the right to recall misbehaving MPs. The survey suggests that these measures have fairly broad support; but public faith in politicians is abysmally low.
2011 was the first full year of government spending cuts, so this was the first Social Attitudes Survey that can clearly be said to measure the public response to austerity. Chancellor George Osborne has promised to halve the UK’s deficit by 2017.
Controversial reforms
The National Health Service is one of the most popular public institutions in Britain, and the most iconic symbol of the UK’s welfare state. This March Parliament approved a divisive package of reforms which will introduce competition into some elements of the NHS.

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