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Hard times harden British attitudes

world Updated: Dec 09, 2011 00:22 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Unfailingly since 1983, Britons have held an annual survey on what Britons are thinking about Britons. This year's results are pretty dramatic, if not disturbing for a nation that is trying to build social cohesion.

This is what the survey found: 75% agreed the income gap between rich and poor was too large but only 35% thought the government should redistribute wealth. Most Britons - 54% - believed unemployment benefits were too high, compared to 35% in 1983. As many as 63% believed parents who "don't want to work" were responsible for growing child poverty (a family of two adults and two children is poor if it earns less than £352 per week).

Nearly half (45%) opposed new housing, particularly in areas where it was most needed, such as outer London, which typically tends to be home to recently-arrived immigrants.

In 2000, 43% would pay much higher prices for the sake of the environment. This support has now fallen to a mere 26%, with the poorest people most reluctant to save the planet with their cash.

It's hard to tell if we are watching a reincarnation of the 1980s Me-First Thatcherite generation, who would happily kick you off the ladder to anywhere or nowhere in order to secure half a tiny foothold. Is this really something new or is it an expression of much older, individualistic attitudes that are being accentuated by the British recession?

The context is important: the survey was taken around the time of last year's general elections, in the midst of the recession. There was tremendous rhetoric about immigrants from politicians and in the media. Then the new coalition government twinned its austerity measures with messages about the 'lazy poor.'

A year later, the nation watched in horror as rioting, looting and arson swept across England. It is an important survey - but not just for Britons, who can't afford further social divisions to depress the national mood.

It's also important because it mirrors social attitudes elsewhere. If the average European won't pay for the excesses of bankers and if the British poor are less concerned about saving the planet, then the West ought to lower expectations of climate change action from poorer countries.