Reflection of the national soul

British Social Attitudes
August 3, 2001

Since the election we have indulged in an orgy of anxiety about a despotic prime minister, a gutless Parliament and apathetic voters. But taking a wider view of our political system, things do not look too bad. Other institutions supporting British democracy are working well. As evidenced by this latest report, British Social Attitudes ( BSA ) goes from strength to strength with the welcome knowledge that soon it will be promoting democracy in Europe too.

Hang on, some will say. Surely opinion surveys, like focus groups, gather information that governments then manipulate? Well, they probably try. But the more they do so, the more they will find themselves listening to what people are saying in the polls. Social surveys increase the efficiency of dialogue between the governing and the governed. Using modern sampling methods and analytic techniques, they can produce reliable estimates of opinion on a vast range of subjects from contact with a tiny proportion of the population.

This complements other consultations. Mass elections give all citizens a voice, but only on generalised platforms. Constituency surgeries listen in depth, but few get an ear. Sample surveys, though, can speak in detail for the whole nation. To the right to vote is added a calculable chance of becoming part of a computed general will.

BSA takes this principle further by organising annual surveys around a core of key questions. Its reports provide invaluable guides to citizens' evolving views, especially on welfare state issues - so it is no wonder that government departments devour them.

The present volume contains a varied selection of recent findings. Several chapters focus on highly topical issues such as rationing in the National Health Service - where it is shown that most people are firmly against setting non-medical limits to availability of treatment. Data reveal public faith in doctors, but distrust of administrators and politicians. Ominously, in terms of future demand, younger people are less accepting of rationing and have greater expectations of the state.

Divisions between town and country are tackled, following a spate of publications from groups such as the Countryside Alliance debating the deprivation of urban and rural dwellers. The level of discontent is less than expected - notwithstanding grumbles, people mainly live in the environment they prefer.

Another area where discontent may have been overestimated is council housing. Findings show people still have confidence in councils as landlords. More tenants than in the mid-1980s list the council as their preferred landlord - although rising private rents may have prompted this.

For the first time, the report explores attitudes to begging, considered as "a challenge to the welfare state". Findings show sympathy for beggars, and regular donations, linked to feelings that beggars' needs are not met by state provisions. The most sympathetic people are also generally the most pro-welfare.

One of BSA 's abiding interests is the relationship between class, values and political allegiance. This year's analysis asks whether new Labour is losing grip in its heartland, as its membership becomes more mixed in class terms. The authors find few differences between classes on economic issues, and they suggest that political behaviour is now less ruled by economic factors.

But there is more divergence between classes on "social and moral" issues. The authors show prophetic judgement in warning that Labour should take note of working-class hostility towards minorities; they may be wrong, though, in playing down the economic dimension of this (in the competitive welfare arena) and instead emphasising "identity".

The chapter on national unity unpicks this matter further, by looking at whether devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and (tentatively) Northern Ireland is leading towards a fracturing of the United Kingdom. Marginal identities are reviving now that the imperial adventure is over, but there is no corresponding rise in English nationalism.

Finally, some more theoretical chapters try to explain why changes are taking place and compare data over time. One attempts to disentangle "life-cycle" effects related to personal development from "cohort" effects shared among a whole generation. Religion and sexual mores, for example, vary between generations; as older cohorts die out, British society will become even more secular. But on public spending issues, the "life-cycle" is more important - when people age, they value education less and health and pensions more. The future balance of public opinion may be affected by the growing proportion of the elderly; but the age-basis of opinions should stay the same.

Cohort analysis also illuminates the report's discussion of censorship of sex scenes in the media. Even in the short period since the questions were last asked, public views have become more permissive, especially on homosexuality, and an underlying factor in this liberalisation is religious decline. This itself is the subject of a chapter comparing Britain today not only with the past but also with other countries. The cross-national dimension indicates that churches are weaker where the welfare state is strong, because it provides an alternative to religious support systems. An intriguing corollary of this - not raised - is that rolling back the state might bring a religious revival.

Although there is much here to interest general readers, as well as feed social scientists and policy-makers, what light does this volume throw on BSA 's democratic function? Inevitably, it reveals shortcomings and shows that vigilance is needed regarding surveys. But this is not because of government machinations, but because researchers make assumptions based on their own lives, or have their own agendas.

Thus there is a general neglect of family relationships, and too much emphasis on citizenship and public roles. This is legitimate in relation to the content of public policies, but should not be carried into the selection of factors to explain attitudes to policy. For example, the fact of being a parent surely has a strong influence on opinions about sex-role and lifestyle issues, censorship, public spending priorities, faith in the NHS - pretty much anything. But BSA asks little about family bonds, so it cannot explore their effects.

This is probably rooted in its launch in 1983 at a time when everything of importance was seen as taking place in the public realm. Families were on the way out - above all, they were "prisons" for women, cramping their development as citizens.

This view still informs BSA 's interpretation of sex differences. It not only prevents important questions being asked but actively distorts some analyses. Most of the chapters in this report are exemplary in giving fair treatment to competing viewpoints, but the one on gender falls short. There is a careful exposition of sex differences in survey responses, but when reflecting on persistent differences in responses between the sexes, speculation kicks in and the authors propose that differences probably arise from socialisation in gender roles.

This suggestion is plausible, but nothing is presented to justify it. No evidence relating to social influences is put forward. No other explanations for difference are even considered. The key chapter findings - that women care more about content of policies, and men about the means of achieving them - would also fit theories about natural sexual differences. But the authors simply take their own point as a given, and conclude with a campaigning proposal that the Women's Unit still needs to eradicate "insidious and adhesive cultural norms which continue to inhibit women from engaging in the political system as effectively as men do".

This is disingenuous. Opinion is served up as fact, or at least majority opinion - moreover, at the point of maximum impact. A final sentence is the first to be read by busy journalists or civil servants or other policy formers. They are entitled to assume that it is properly grounded in the survey questions and public responses. This one is not.

So there are areas where BSA needs to be more careful. Balanced treatment is essential, especially on contentious issues, if the survey is to play a democratic role. But such lapses are few and do not detract from its enormous value, and its essential affinity with modern society.

We live in a secular and technological age. Our sense of community, reciprocity and interdependence is centralised and depersonalised through participation as free individuals in the welfare state, and our deepest political conflicts are about who may be subsidising whose lifestyle choices.

BSA 's topical and well-informed reports on our feelings about all this combine precise quantitative analysis with sensitive moral accounting. They hold up a mirror to our national soul, and have become an indispensable tool not just for governments, but also for modern citizens to understand their fellows, and themselves, better.

Geoff Dench is senior research fellow, Institute of Community Studies, London, and professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

British Social Attitudes: The 17th Report, Focusing on Diversity

Editor - Roger Jowell et al
ISBN - 0 7619 7045 2
Publisher - Sage and National Centre for Social Research
Price - £35.00
Pages - 348

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