Britain in 2008: a nation in thrall to Thatcherism

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The Independent Online

More people care about the harm done by car exhaust than whether the couple living next door are married or living in sin, according to British Social Attitudes, the annual report about our quirks and prejudices.

As a nation, we have become more liberal in our attitudes to sex and more caring about the environment. At least, we think we have, though when it comes to matching words and deeds, we fall down on the high standards we expect of ourselves.

Despite our best intentions, we can be selfish, sexist, prejudiced and uncaring about the poor. In fact, when it comes to blaming the poor for being poor, attitudes are harder now than they were in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was at the peak of her influence.

The surveys, compiled from more than 3,000 interviews with a representative cross-section of society, have been conducted annually since 1983 by the National Centre for Social Research, with government backing.

21st-century attitudes

POVERTY

More than a quarter think poor people are poor because they are lazy or lack willpower, a view held by less than a fifth in 1986. Only 34 per cent think the Government should redistribute income, compared with 47 per cent in 1995.

WOMEN

Feminism has scored. Only 17 per cent of men now think that earning money is a man's job while women should keep house. That compares with 32 per cent in 1989. So you might deduce that men are now taking half the household chores – but you would be wrong. In eight out of 10 marriages or partnerships, it is the woman who "usually" or "always" does the laundry – a statistic that has hardly changed in 14 years.

SEX

Tying the knot is not as important as it used to be. In 1984, more than half the population disapproved of sex before marriage; now 70 per cent say there is nothing wrong with it.Two thirds now do not think it makes any real difference whether a couple who live together are married or not. In fact, there is a persistent myth that there something called "common law marriage" gives cohabiting couples the same legal rights as spouses. More than half the population believes this; it is not true.

HOMOSEXUALITY

There is still a lot of prejudice. Nearly one third of the population (32 per cent) think that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong. But in 1987, three quarters of the population disapproved of gays. Two out of five people do not think that gay couples make suitable parents.

RACE

The number of people who admit to being prejudiced went up after the attacks of 11 September 2001, and has stayed up – at 30 per cent, compared with 25 per cent seven years ago. More than a third of those surveyed think that equal opportunities for blacks and Asians have gone too far.

EQUALITY

A lot of people will say that they do not mind who they work for, but they think their work colleagues are not so broad minded. The commonest prejudice is against taking orders from someone younger. Nearly one in five (17 per cent) say they would not like that, and twice as many (35 per cent) say their colleagues would not like it. Nine per cent admitted they would not like to work for an Asian boss; 22 per cent said their colleagues would not like it. The idea of working for a woman is losing its terrors, however. Only 5 per cent said they would object to it, while 12 per cent thought their colleagues might mind.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Four out of five people think that the number of cars in use is having a serious effect on climate and two thirds agree that everyone should reduce their car journeys. These figures apply as much to car drivers as to anyone else. However, the figures suddenly drop when people are asked whether they are willing and able to match words with actions. Less than half said yes to reducing car journeys. Another 12 per cent admitted that they could use the car less, but did not seem willing to. And 23 per cent say that people should be allowed to use their cars as much as they like.

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