Britain seen as more Thatcherite than when she was in power

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN IS regarded as an uncaring and cruel society where the elderly, the weak and the unemployed are viewed with hostility rather than kindness. Almost two-thirds of adults surveyed recently thought their country had become a less caring place than it was 10 years ago and believed that the situation would get worse in the next decade.

Most of the people believe that the decline in kindness and caring has been caused by a lowering of moral values and a lack of discipline from parents. This has been exacerbated by the increasing numbers of families splitting up, a growth in materialism, and an over-reliance on the welfare state, they said. The nationwide survey of nearly 2,000 adults aged over 15, conducted by Market and Opinion Research International (MORI), shows that since 1989 people's perception of the society they live in has changed substantially.

The findings show that the notions of "welfare scroungers" and "standing on your own two feet", prevalent during the Thatcher years, have gained influence in the Nineties. Half the respondents believe that many of those receiving state benefits do not genuinely need help, compared with only a third in 1989, and nine out of ten respondents said people should be encouraged to stand on their own two feet.

People are also less willing to put themselves out for others and now spend less time with people they think are lonely, not bothering to check on elderly or disabled neighbours or relatives. Less than a quarter of those who took part in the survey had helped an elderly or disabled person to cross the street compared with a third in 1989.

"While Britain's self-portrait as a `caring society' is not as good as it might be, more than 10 million people have gone out of their way to help an elderly or disabled person to cross the street," said Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI.

Although slightly more people said they gave money to charity - 73 per cent in 1999 compared with 72 per cent in 1989 - they were less likely to spend their free time raising money by going on sponsored walks or doing other fund-raising events.

An increasing emphasis on money and the growth of materialism had led to 45 per cent of those surveyed daydreaming about winning the National Lottery. Nearly one in twenty claimed that they thought about it "non- stop".

"Our poll paints a realistic picture of life in Britain at the end of the millennium," said Russell Twisk, editor-in-chief of Readers Digest, who commissioned the research. "We selfishly dream of the lottery and expect people to look after themselves."

Begging has also become more prevalent, with over twice as many people coming in contact with people begging in public places than they did 10 years ago. In 1999, 59 per cent of those surveyed said they had been approached in the past six months compared with only 25 per cent in 1989. On average, people gave 47 pence when someone asked them for money, but of those who were approached, six out of ten gave nothing at all.


Lesley Saunders, 23, a student at the London School of Economics, said:

"People are not kind any longer. But I experienced kindness yesterday after my wallet was stolen. A hotel porter gave me pounds 1 to get home." She helped someone cross a road last week and she had chatted to a lonely person on the London underground yesterday.

It is a long time since she has visited an elderly or disabled person. "I don't know anyone like that", she said.

Malcolm Barwell, 46, a platform supervisor from Whitham in Essex, said: "People are a lot less kind than they were; by far. It's a rat race." He can't remember the last time he helped someone cross a road. And it was a year ago when he last chatted to a someone lonely. "It was a kid on a railway platform," he said.

What about the last time he visited someone unwell to see how they were? "A little while ago, as a matter of fact," he said.

Melanie Strafford, 25, an account manager from Hertfordshire, said:

"Everyone is really rude. You get pushed, budged and barged everywhere you go these days."

Although she hasn't helped anyone cross a road recently, she chats frequently to lonely people. "Normally relations or someone who looks like they have a problem," she said.

She also visits her elderly relatives regularly, and attended a charity event only two weeks ago.

Martin Bannister, 32, a care worker from Manchester, said:

"I don't believe that people are any less kind than they used to be." He helped one of his clients cross a road on Sunday. Mr Bannister, who works with people with mental health problems, also chatted to a lonely person on Sunday. "It was somebody who is an alcoholic," he said.

However it was "a long time ago" when he last visited an elderly person for a reason other than his job.