Britain's young adults are increasingly sceptical about the redistribution of taxes for welfare support and are subscribing in growing numbers to the Norman Tebbit "Get on your bike" philosophy, a comprehensive study of public attitudes reveals today.
The 20th Social Attitudes report reveals an increase in support for the injection of more taxpayers' money into health and education - which may be of some relief to the Chancellor ahead of tomorrow's pre-Budget report.
But less than a third of the nation's 18 to 34-year-olds now support the idea of raising taxes to help the unemployed and single parents, compared with 48 per cent of that age group in 1987. About 60 per cent of those 55 and older support taxes to help the poor.
The study of changing attitudes, which is compiled annually by the National Centre for Social Research, also charts the hardening views of Labour voters towards the poor. In 1987, when attitudes on spending taxes on welfare support were first canvassed, 73 per cent of Labour voters were supportive. In today's report the figure is just 50 per cent - a remarkable drop, notwithstanding the vast increase in the party's support base since the Eighties. Over the same period, the Conservative voters' figure remained virtually static, at about 37 per cent.
In a changing world, young people feel increasingly responsible for organising their own financial destinies. About three quarters accept they will depend on private pensions, even though almost eight out of 10 people of all ages believe it is the Government's responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the old.
The hardening of views on welfare is based on faulty logic, according to the report's authors. Many respondents are concerned about the amount of taxpayers' money being ploughed into unemployment benefit and single parent allowances - figures which are, in fact, relatively small.
But the new mindset owes much to Tony Blair delivering the same mantra as Margaret Thatcher about individuals' need to stand on their own two feet, according to Tom Sefton of the London School of Economics' centre for the analysis of social exclusion and a researcher for the report.
"The New Labour message has been that higher benefits create welfare state dependency. The gradual absorption of that message from both New Labour and Thatcherite policies may explain the attitude among today's younger people," said Mr Sefton. "It seems as though public attitudes towards the welfare state are now less divided on ideological grounds than ever."
That trend may also owe something to Tony Blair's ability to sell Thatcherite principles far better than the Iron Lady herself. British Social Attitudes reports in the late 1980s showed how Mrs Thatcher was convincing growing numbers of the injustice of her own welfare policies for the unemployed. In 1983, 46 per cent considered unemployment benefits too low and, by 1990, the figure reached 52 per cent. By contrast, the number with this view has shrunk markedly, to 29 per cent, in this year's report.
Labour supporters have also been persuaded against the merits of income redistribution since Mr Blair came to power. In 1996, 58 per cent of Labour supporters backed income redistribution; by 2002 that had dropped to 49 per cent.
"Tony Blair seems to have been more successful at persuading voters to accept Mrs Thatcher's policies than she was herself," states researcher and Independent analyst John Curtice.
"In moving the centre ground of public opinion to the right he has also moved it close to the ideology of the Conservatives. And the irony of that is that he may just have made it easier for the Conservatives to regain power in the future."
The survey also provides uncomfortable reading forMr Blair in light of his attempts to persuade voters thatpublic services are improving. People have higher expectations of the NHS and are less satisfied with it now than they were 20 years ago. In 1983, 55 per cent of people were satisfied. Now, only 40 per cent are, despite an increase in government spending from £15bn in 1983 to £65bn in 2003 and a reduction in average waiting times from 10 months to four months.
But people who have had experience of the NHS in the last year are considerably more likely to be happy with it than those who have not, the survey shows.
There is some surprising good news. Three-fifths of respondents think trains are a fast way to travel and a similar proportion think that it is easy to find out when trains run. Forty per cent think trains run often enough, compared with 35 per cent who do not.
There is a sobering reality check for the Government in its pledge to tackle poverty and abolish child poverty in 20 years. The report chronicles an income gap between the rich and poor that is now wider than at any time since studies began, with the poorest 10 per cent of the population receiving just 3 per cent of the country's income and the richest 10 per cent more than a quarter.
But the nation is by no means immune to its abiding social inequalities. A total of 82 per cent of people surveyed said the gap between rich and poor is "too large", a small increase on the previous survey. Most people considered the gap between the incomes of rich and poor to be about twice as great as it ought to be.
Respondents were as suspicious of those who receive too much money as they were of those who receive welfare benefits. A popular solution to the wage gap was a dramatic lowering of salaries for higher income earners, rather than a large increase for lower earners. "Views on these matters are likely to be even more damning following ... recent ... multimillion pound boardroom deals," the report said.
Universities 'still fail the working class'
Britain is uncertain about the Government's plans to shift the financial burden of higher education from the state to the individual through tuition fees and retains a deep-seated conviction that the higher education system is still failing young people from working class backgrounds.
Although the Social Attitudes survey details the soaring proportion of young people going to university, it also registers an abiding perception among 50,000 respondents that students from less-advantaged backgrounds are under-represented in higher education. Three-quarters of those interviewed said it was very, or fairly, important to encourage more students from these backgrounds.
Over the past 20 years of surveys, it has become clear that a majority of people think some students, depending on their social circumstances, should be asked to contribute to their own tuition fees - a possible barrier to higher education, according to critics.
But when asked about tuition fees payable after graduation, less than a half (47 per cent) were convinced of the idea. Just over a third (35 per cent) thought no fees should be payable after graduation and a sixth (16 per cent) thought everyone should pay then.
Euro poll shows we're as negative as ever
Will we ever vote for the euro? The nation's resolutely anti-euro outlook remains in this year's survey, which shows the proportion of people wanting to keep the pound above the 50 per cent mark as usual, while 58 per cent of respondents said they would vote against the euro in a referendum.
The results of a euro quiz put to respondents, who had to answer true or false to a number of statements, suggest that political debates may not have conveyed much information:
'One euro is worth less than one British pound' (True) correct answers: 68 per cent. 'Britain is the only member of the EU that is not a member of the single European currency' (False) correct answers: 57 per cent. 'The headquarters of the European Central Bank are in Germany' (True) correct answers: 36 per cent. 'The countries that have introduced the euro are still using their own currencies as well' (False) correct answers: 60 per cent.
The survey confounds the view that opposition to the euro stems from ignorance. Those with lowest scores were the most likely to vote no in a referendum but even among those who scored three or more, a minority - 43 per cent - said they endorsed the euro.
'British Social Attitudes: 20th report', published by Sage, £40