Skip to main content

British Social Attitudes 34

The National Centre for Social Research’s BSA 34 comes at a time when Britain seems split in two on many of the biggest questions. A close referendum decision to leave the European Union has been followed by a snap UK election resulting in a hung parliament. Before that, we had a narrow majority UK government itself preceded by another hung parliament. And in Scotland specifically, the country was split by the question of whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Each vote produced an outcome in which the country seemed starkly but often evenly divided.

At each moment there were strident voices on every side and sometimes higher than usual turnout. Fears about political apathy have been displaced by worries about national unity. The results have seen some accuse fellow citizens of ‘betrayal’ or ‘revenge’, of voting with their ‘gut’ not their heads, or of being ‘naive’, ‘stupid’ or ‘selfish’ (Foges, 2017; Perring, 2017; Ridley, 2016; Wilkinson, 2016; Woodward, 2016). One commentator has even asked whether the country is ‘ungovernable’ (De Quetteville, 2017).

Despite all of this, we have seen great moments of national unity, like One Love Manchester and the Great Get Together, but these have sadly too often been in response to acts of terrorism. After moments of togetherness, too many of us are left wondering whether we really know or understand our neighbours and fellow citizens. Overlapping theories now abound about whether we are seeing a fundamental realignment in previously firm views, trends and dividing lines.

For some, the country is divided into what author David Goodhart calls the ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’; a split evident in the EU vote (Goodhart, 2017). ‘Anywheres’ are the degree-educated geographically mobile who embrace new people and experiences, and define themselves by their achievements. In contrast, ‘somewheres’ have an identity rooted in their hometown and find rapid change, such as that brought on by immigration, unsettling.

Others have drawn parallels with the US and suggested we might be beginning our own ‘culture wars’ (Bagehot, 2017). Here the dividing lines are no longer class or left versus right, but a clash between liberalism and a resurgent conservatism, with the latter angered by issues like same-sex marriage and a sense of runaway multiculturalism.

Before this, there was the suggestion that this is the age of the ‘open’ versus the ‘closed’: those embracing an open economy and tolerant society versus those looking to lock out competition and change.

For some, however, the splits and trends in society today are still best seen through the lens of economics and class; a lens which contrasts those who are successfully riding the waves of globalisation and technological change and those increasingly ‘left behind’ by the market, austerity and automation (Doane, 2016). On this view the rising inequality of the late 20th century and the consequences of the financial crash underpin much of the changing political currents we see today.

The stark split in voting behaviour by age in the recent general election has also reignited debates about whether we are seeing a clash of generations; contrasting baby-boomers against a ‘jilted generation’ left without secure jobs, good pensions and affordable housing (Howker & Malik, 2010).

Finally, many have picked up a growing feeling of ‘anti-politics’ (for example: Clarke et al., 2016) bridging left and right that encompasses all or part rejection of current politics and parties, scandal-hit institutions, ‘political correctness’, and/or an ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’.

Our conclusion is that none of these theories tells the whole story. Instead, every BSA survey seeks to look beyond the headlines to uncover the deeper attitudes and trends that shape our country. This year is no different, and we have found that the country, while divided on many questions, does have an underlying state of mind - that of a kind-hearted but not soft-hearted community.

‘Narratives’ and conclusions about events are now formed rapidly, often before basic information is known and verified. The BSA survey unashamedly takes a slower, more considered approach, rooted in some of the most rigourous social research available.