Nation of self-indulgent xenophobes?

Permissive but intolerant, liberal but cautious, the British are a contradictory lot according to a new survey
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Back in the grey and austere 1940s, tens of thousands of respectable British people tried smoking dope. Perhaps it was with the Army in a Cairo souk, perhaps it was in the backstreets of Liverpool. We know that because three per cent of those who are now 65 report that they did to the latest British Social Attitudes survey.

We now live in a different Britain, and there is a lot more dope. Of those aged 18 to 24, more than one in three (37 per cent) acknowledge some experience with the weed. Only a third of 18- to 24-year-olds disagree with the proposition that cannabis should be legalised.

But according to today's survey - the annual snapshot of the nation's beliefs - we are not a nation of drug-heads. More than four-fifths don't want heroin legalised, and it is only in places like London that you get significant numbers agreeing that possession of small amounts of heroin should not be prosecuted. But the fact is that youth is a lot more liberal- minded and, as far as cannabis goes, they do it as well as approve of it.

Yet illiberalism is evident in our views of foreigners. Significant evidence of xenophobia is uncovered, with nearly two-thirds of English people saying the number of immigrants should be cut and a quarter saying immigrants increase crime rates. During the past couple of years there has been a marked shift of opinion against the European Union. Not surprisingly, young people's liberalism extends to sex. Ask younger people about sex on television or homosexuality and you get a broadly tolerant, permissive reply. If you extend questions to the family, there are signs of young people preferring friends to family for advice or loans.

That's the youth of today. Project that picture 40 years into the future and what do you get? Oldies smoking while watching sexy videos with their gay friends? It sounds like the plot of a second-rate sitcom, but it is a fair reflection of what is to come. Between the lines of the survey is a pretty convincing picture of a future Britain that is more liberal, tolerant and, yes, there's a peculiar whiff in the air in the old folks' home.

Britain is ageing. That social fact has become a kind of mantra for welfare state pessimists and a category of doomsters worrying about how we'll pay for pensions. Most of that anxiety is either misplaced or stirred up by people on the right who think you can run an advanced civilised society on a Japanese-size tax base. They collude with new moralists who would like the future to be censored, repressed and locked up inside the family.

The political fashionableness of the new moralism is not founded on changed public attitudes. Virginia Bottomley takes it upon herself to say that David Cronenburg's film, Crash, is so dreadful it should be banned. In taking such a view, she is speaking for about 19 per cent of the British population - the number of people who (according to the BSA) say a "film with a frank scene of man and woman having sex" should never be allowed on cinema screens. British Social Attitudes records majorities for banning telephone services and a higher proportion of people saying they would ban sex on the radio than in cinema.

That is not to say the British are permissive. On a scale of one to six, with six representing showing everything to everyone and one a complete ban on all sex scenes everywhere, the national average is 2.55. It is when that is broken down for age and education the future starts to look liberal. The 18-24 age group scores 3.13 and graduates 3.00. And those figures link with BSA measure of attitudes to abortion and euthanasia.

The more graduates, the more liberal the country becomes. The older today's young people got, the more liberal we get. The evidence is that people do not, as they age, get crotchety like their parents. On the contrary, once picked up, liberalism lingers like a virus - what researchers call a cohort effect. "Society's attitudes are likely to become more permissive as younger cohorts replace the older ones," the survey says.

British Social Attitudes. The 13th report (Social and Community Planning Re- search, Dartmouth Publishing Company, pounds 25).

Women see less of siblings


Reports of the death of the family are much exaggerated, the research concludes, after examining the extent to which relatives keep in touch with each other and rely on family members for loans, help and advice.

But changes in the pattern of work, notably the growth in numbers of women in full-time employment, seems to have cut family contact among women.

Adult women in full-time work see much less of their mothers than they did a decade ago. In 1986 some 64 per cent of working women saw their mother (assuming she did not live with her daughter) at least once a week; by 1995 this was down to 45 per cent.

Despite growing mobility and a common tendency for people to move away from their family home to attend college and seek employment most family members still live within an hour's journey of one another.

Around two thirds of parents with grown up children live less than an hour's journey time away from at least one of their sons or daughters - down, but only slightly, on the figures for ten years ago. Contact between relatives has fallen in recent years. But contact with friends has also fallen - suggesting it is change in work and leisure time that explains the change rather than some cataclysmic "decline of the family".

The family that prays together stays together ... What the data shows is that church attenders score the highest on the researchers' "family orientation index" - a composite measure of attitudes towards family life and contacts. Pro-family families emerge as the most authoritarian, too.

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Some strong measures of xenophobia show up, with nearly two-thirds of English people and yet more Scots approving the proposition that Britain should limit imports to protect the economy. Around a third of both nations say television should give preference to British programmes.

There is widespread support for the proposition that political refugees should be allowed to stay in Britain and near-unanimous support for schools making more effort to teach foreign languages. But some 64 per cent of English people and slightly more Scots and Welsh say immigrant numbers should be reduced. Some 37 per cent of the English and 34 per cent of Scots disagree that immigrants are good for the economy - which, taken with evidence that people favour making Britain more open to new ideas and cultures, suggests a certain schizophrenia on immigration.

In 1994, 37 per cent of British people wanted closer ties to the European Union, but a year later, this figure had dropped to 29 per cent. There was a marked fall in the numbers of those wanting the UK to unite fully with the EU. Yet some 14 per cent (up from 11 per cent in 1994) want the UK to leave the EU, while 28 per cent want Britain to increase EU powers.

British Social Attitudes says the nation is now divided into four identifiable groups - supra-nationalists unmoved by symbols of British nation- hood (and more likely to read The Independent, they say); patriots who are not anti-immigrant but relish nation-al sentiment; belligerents, who read the Sun and want to keep people out, but are not proud of what we have; and John Bulls who want to keep them out and are proud to be British.

The not-so-flexible worker


Employees are now markedly less willing to retrain in order to get a new job than they were in the mid-1980s, while unemployed people are less willing than they ever were to take an "unacceptable" job rather than stay on benefits.

According to British Social Attitudes the "flexible labour market" wished by Government ministers is less in evidence now than ten years' ago.

Asked if they would be willing to retrain to find a replacement job, 49 per cent of employees said they would be "very willing", compared with 54 per cent in 1983. Of the unemployed 44 per cent were willing to retrain compared with 50 per cent a decade ago.

However there are some signs the unemployed are now more willing to think about moving house in order to find work. Some 59 per cent of the unemployed say they have never considered moving, down from 65 per cent in 1983.

The survey suggests that despite lots of talk about job insecurity peoples' attitudes towards the job market are more bullish than they have been for some time and their beliefs are founded on their experience. In 1995 13 per cent of employees had been with their present employer more than 20 years, compared with 11 per cent in this category in 1991 - suggesting there is a core of the workforce which is highly secure.

However more people than a decade ago consider it likely they will leave their present job during the year ahead and there has been a significant drop in the proportion of employees who consider it unlikely there won't be some disturbance in their employment in coming months.