16 January 2012

Ruder, more liberal and as class-conscious as ever: how Britain sees itself today

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By Sunder Katwala

Who do we think we are in Britain today? That question will recur across 2012. Arguments over Scottish independence and the Union have dominated the opening political exchanges of the year. Addressing the budget deficit is not just a question of economic management, but also of social choices about how to handle the pressures of austerity fairly. And this year will also offer a chance to take the long view of social change in Britain, as we host the Olympics for the first time since 1948, and as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will provoke reflections not just on the service of the Monarch but on the transformation of post-war Britain over six decades.

British Future is a new, non-partisan think-tank that will seek to bring people together to deepen public conversations on issues of identity and integration, migration and opportunity. So we wanted to begin by finding out how people feel we have changed, for better and worse.

 The increased liberalism of British society is now an entrenched fact. Our survey showed that almost everybody (88 per cent) can see that women now have better opportunities, and 72 per cent agree that we are less discriminatory of people who are gay, as is obvious, given that within living memory gay people have been imprisoned for their sexuality.


We think race relations are better today, too, though by a narrower margin, with 44 per cent saying they have changed for the better, while 29 per cent disagree, and 25 per cent are somewhere in between. The feeling that things have changed for the better is felt more strongly in London than in the north-west or Wales, and by black and Asian Britons, who may perhaps be more likely to base their response on the lived experience of everyday integration rather than the media flashpoints which capture the headlines.

But if these are positive findings, British Future also learned that people believe we are a ruder society. Only seven per cent think Britain is now a more polite place, while 74 per cent disagree. Asian respondents were much more likely to see an increase in civility than white Britons (28 per cent compared with five per cent white Britons). I doubt they disagree about the fading art of queuing, or selfish manners on the roads, but Asians may be more aware of the fading of overt racial prejudice.

Downton divide

People are pretty united on thinking that our grandparents were better parents than we are today; only 12 per cent think today’s parents are better. What we do disagree about is class. Strikingly, 37 per cent of people think Britain is a more classless society than in 1948 with 40 per cent disagreeing. The question splits the country down the middle, with Londoners most confident that class matters less in Britain (41 per cent to 29 per cent, or 12 per cent more certain that class matters). In the midlands and north the balance is marginally against the idea that class matters less while in Scotland, Wales and north-east of England there was much stronger disagreement that we were a more classless society.

Interestingly, class itself made less difference to how people answered this question with social class AB respondents seeing Britain as classless by 42 per cent to 37 per cent, and DE respondents disagreeing by 36 per cent to 39 per cent. Does this suggest, perhaps, that our notion of class is as rooted in cultural perceptions of what class means as in socio-economic factors. 
After all, the weight of evidence is surely that class mattered far more in 1948 than it does now in 2012. That was the year when the extension of death duties, the birth of the National Health Service and the post-war welfare state finally heralded the end of the pre-war Downton Abbey era.

Culturally, classes are less sharply defined than in the classic post-war comedy sketches of the upper, middle and lower classes, not least because of the impact of television itself. But the socio-economic picture is more complex. Britain did become more equal in the post-war era than it had been between the wars, but then became more unequal again over the past 30 years.

Our poll suggests a strong sense among us that class still shapes life and opportunities in Britain today, perhaps rather more than the media or political parties acknowledge. Even so, I suspect most would acknowledge that we no longer live in Downton Britain. Perhaps the results of our poll indicate that different people were answering different questions. Those over 55 were most likely to say that Britain is more classless, drawing on their own memory and experience of what has changed. 

Those under 24 with no experience of what Britain was like in 1948, may simply be indicating that they experience class in Britain today as still being very important – from educational opportunity and getting a job to, perhaps above all, who can and cannot get a foot on the housing ladder and why.

Post-war Britain became a more liberal society because of two primary drivers: weakening of traditional prejudices on race, gender and sexuality among the young, and the expansion of educational opportunity (higher education in particular), from a narrow cohort of boys to a much wider share of the population.

Generational conflict

But this raises an interesting possibility. There is nothing inexorable or pre-determined about younger generations propelling us to a more liberal future. If this next generation believes that the odds are becoming stacked against them – that educational opportunity will become narrower; that a good degree may not lead to a job unless one’s parents have the connections and networks; and that a chance to own property depends primarily on access to the bank of mum and dad – then we could see a hardening of social attitudes.

British Future’s State of the Nation poll captures an underlying sense of confidence in modern Britain but sounds alarm bells about the current fears of its citizens. There is widespread economic anxiety and worries about falling living standards, which is perfectly rational, but this is combined with a stubborn optimism about prospects, even in this year ahead. There are high and sustained levels of national pride; a strong sense of belonging to cities, towns and neighbourhoods; and a welcoming attitude to newcomers who wish to contribute to thinking and debates about being “us”. 

What may prove difficult, in tough economic times, are debates about whose needs take priority. We hear increasing talk about the selfishness of the baby boomers, and the inheritance they leave to their children and grandchildren. There are real issues of opportunity and fairness, but if they are articulated as a clash of the generations then the debate will not be constructive, not least because of the increased electoral weight of the over-65s, (and their readiness to vote).

The argument about needs and priorities was also a recurring theme in commentary following the Stephen Lawrence murder trial. Some echoed discontent that the conviction and media reaction reflected metropolitan disdain for the white working-class in places like Eltham. It would indeed be a tragic outcome if convicting racist murderers was perceived by some to be incompatible with concern for those in poorer white communities and their fears of being left behind.

Must politics in an era of low growth become increasingly about competing grievances? It is a claim we may hear more often. But the British Future poll gives good reason to believe many of us would raise our voices in opposition.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy, www.opendemocracy.net. View it here.

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