David Cameron’s ‘blaming the poor’ speech in Glasgow may be more than just an attempt to placate the unreconstructed right of the Conservative party. It is not often recognised how far British public opinion has shifted towards a liberal individualist stance on social issues in recent years. In some ways we are more Thatcherite under New Labour than we ever were under the Conservatives.
Evidence from a range of attitude surveys points in the same direction. Sympathy for the poor, growing steadily stronger through the 1980s and early 1990s, has collapsed. By 2006 the situation was almost exactly reversed. The public is roughly twice as likely to attribute poverty to laziness or lack of will power now compared with a decade ago. The numbers thinking the government should spend more on the poor has steadily declined.
People are also much readier to accept the inequalities of the market. In 1997, slightly more people thought it unfair that those on high incomes could buy better health care or education than the rest of the population than took the opposite view. Now nearly twice as many think buying better health care or schooling is perfectly acceptable as don’t.
Various factors contribute to explaining the shift to the right in social attitudes. Our recent qualitative work examined how people discuss fairness and government services. A strong theme across our interviews was the acceptance of inequalities. While the better off should be expected to contribute in the same way as everyone else does (and tax avoidance by the super-rich was seen as just as outrageous as benefit cheating by the poor), there was little support for redistributive taxation. Such attitudes are buttressed by a strong and widespread belief that opportunities to succeed, while not entirely equal, are open to those prepared to make the effort across society. Why fleece the better off when they pay in just as much as anyone else, and anyway we all stand a reasonable chance of getting there if only we try hard enough?
Opportunity for all and tolerance of income inequalities are strong themes in political discussions and in public opinion. Turning that round, sharply progressive tax and direct interventions to help the most vulnerable become unacceptable. When it pursues such policies, the government is careful to do so by stealth. Perhaps the success of those ideas is reflected in the lurch to the right of public opinion. Cameron’s claim that ‘social problems are often the consequences of the choices people make’ is the logical extension of this view.
Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent and author of ‘Reframing Social Citizenship’ to be published shortly by Oxford University Press. This article appeared on Compass.
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This post was written by Peter Taylor-Gooby