Who Are We? What Do We Want?

by .
Originally published in Social Stock Exchange

Another week – another drowning out of everything apparently unrelated to the EU. This week it was the turn of how the British view themselves to get ignored – rather surprising really, given the political upheavals we’re going through.

NatCen, the independent social research agency, published its 33rdannual British Social Attitudes report to almost universal indifference; the mass media seemed much more interesting in getting twisted knickers over the anthill squabbles about who is going to ‘lead’ the Conservative or Labour parties.

This is bizarre; if you want an inkling of how the country is feeling, you’d do much better reading the 2015 British Attitudes Survey to get a whiff of what’s happening, than by reading the latest hysterical newspaper headline.

Surveys and opinion polls are two-a-penny these days. While many are inherently fallible, the British Social Attitudes survey has a degree of credibility noticeably absent in many such samplings. It surveyed 4,328 respondents and weights them extremely carefully to get a representative sample of adults aged 18 or over.

The one thing the survey does not do is give an overall picture of Britain that can easily be put into a headline. Contradictory things are going on in the subterranean view we have of ourselves; hysteria is absent.

One of the strangest findings is that, although Britain’s heavy industrial sector has declined, and manual workers are thin on the ground, 60% of people describe themselves as working class, compared with 40% who say they are middle class. And almost half of people in professional and managerial occupations say they are working class. This is the same as it was in 1983.

According to Kirby Swales, Director of NatCen’s Survey Centre: “The class divide is alive and well in Britain and the economic instability and austerity of recent years seem to have sharpened our belief that it is difficult to move from one class to another…Class identity is also closely linked to attitudes in other areas. Those who say they are working class are far more likely to be opposed to immigration…even when they are in professional and managerial jobs.”

Original article published here.

On some issues there is almost unanimity: 93% of the respondents think the “NHS has a funding problem and 32% say this problem is severe – up from 19% in 2014.” But no unanimity when it comes to solving this problem: “In spite of this, there is no consensus about how to bridge the funding gap. While 42% are willing to pay more through taxes, 26% say the NHS should live within its means.”

We seem also to be a society that favours tough love when it comes to welfare support: “Since 2011, public support for more spending on benefits for people who are disabled and cannot work has increased…to 61% and for single parents to 36% [but] 45% back a cut in benefits for unemployed people. Six in ten say there should be a limit on how long people receive unemployment benefit. And more than 8 in 10 say people should take a job that is unsuitable in some way if they are unemployed and in receipt of benefits.”

There are contradictions too when it comes to the world of work: “In 2015, 62% of people said they would enjoy having a job even if they didn’t need the money. This figure is considerably higher than the 49% who were of this view in 2005. However…the proportion of workers who say they experience stress in their jobs has increased and now stands at 37%. Those in lower skilled occupations have seen one of the greatest increases in stress: 29% of those in semi-routine and routine jobs find work stressful ‘always’ or ‘often’, up from 19% in 2005…while more people in professional and managerial jobs are able to control their patterns of work, fewer people in lower skilled jobs can do so; 57% of those in routine or semi-routine jobs say they are not free to decide how their daily work is organised compared with 42% in 2005.”

And the attitudes towards immigration are not simple-minded either. While around 60% said migrants increase pressure on the NHS (and 70% on schools), only 35% think that immigration is bad for the UK economy and 45% that immigration undermines Britain’s cultural life.

But the survey also found that Britain is perceived to be divided along class lines: “Nearly 8 in 10 of us think that the divide between social classes is wide or very wide. We are less likely now to think it is possible to move between social classes than in the past.”

Nor is the divide just along class lines; it’s also a north-south division.

Some evidence in support of this came this week with a report commissioned by Transport for the North(TfN), which suggests that “the North currently produces £4,800 less gross value added per person per annum [than the UK average] and over £22,000 less per person than London.”

It also says the TfN “has identified ‘capabilities’ in which the North is a world leader…the four prime capabilities are Advanced Manufacturing, Digital Development, Health Innovation and Energy.” This same report claims that these four sectors alone have the potential to transform the north’s economy by adding £97 billion and 850,000 jobs by 2050.

Who knows? Maybe that’s possible. But it’s not going to happen merely by building a high-speed rail link – no matter how fast it’s built or how fast the trains go. That railway might help – but not if there are no affordable homes, insufficient NHS services, and new schools built.

The future of the North – and the South – lies not in grand, unimaginably expensive, top-down schemes that are imposed in the hope that they generate resurgence. Rather, the divisions of our country, our society, can best be closed by the spread of caring capitalism that transcends social barriers. As the Social Stock Exchange spreads across the country – through regional exchanges in first Exeter and now a pilot in Liverpool – local people will, we hope, find the kind of support they need to fire up their own entrepreneurial efforts to help themselves, while helping others. 2016’s British Attitudes Survey is likely to be very similar to 2015’s; but maybe that of 2026 will start to show some progress in how we see ourselves.

Originally published here in Social Stock Exchange.

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