What is freedom? It depends on your class

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The Independent Online
People in Britain have a distinctive view of their rights. Asked what they would include in a Bill of Rights, and what they would exclude, more people of all types included hospital treatment on the NHS than any other item. This consensus beat even the right to a fair trial before a jury into second place.

Other possible rights show a significant division between middle-class and working-class voters. Middle-class people are keener on formal or institutional rights. Four-fifths of the middle class would include the right to privacy in phone and mail communications, and similar levels believe in the right to know what information government holds about you. Fewer (70 per cent) working-class people support either item, and rather more manual workers would exclude such rights.

Middle-class groups are keener to put in a Bill protection for freedom of religious worship (66 per cent) than working-class groups (55 per cent). The same gap is visible on free assembly, which 65 per cent of the middle class would include compared with 54 per cent of manual workers. When the Rowntree/Mori poll asked about equal treatment for people entering and leaving the UK regardless of colour, again 64 per cent of middle-class people would include such a right, compared with only 54 per cent of the working class. Middle-class people are 11 times more likely to include this on their list than to exclude it; manual workers only five times more.

Attitudes to the right of the press to report on matters of public interest show a startling gap in perceptions, with 57 per cent of the middle class including this right and 12 per cent excluding it, whereas only 48 per cent of the working class included this right and 24 per cent excluded it.

It would be easy to conclude that the middle class is simply more rights- orientated than the rest of society. But on two key issues, homelessness and the right to silence, this was not the case. More working-class people (62 per cent) than middle-class (58 per cent) would include a right for the homeless to be rehoused. Twice as many middle-class people would exclude this provision. Working-class people are eight times more likely to include this right than exclude it; the odds fall to four-to-one for the middle class.

Public support for a defendant's right to silence in courthas dropped like a stone since 1991, reflecting public acceptance of Michael Howard's measures to remove this safeguard. In 1991, the right was included by 40 per cent and excluded by 17 per cent of respondents; by 1995, it was included by only 32 per cent and excluded by 29 per cent, almost removing its always slender positive margin of support.

In fact, among middle-class voters there were no more people in favour of including this right (34 per cent) than excluding it. But among working- class voters, perhaps more suspicious of how they would fare with the police, 31 per cent would include the right, 25 per cent would exclude it.

Apart from the right to silence in court, the overall picture of attitudes or rights is one of great stability over time. The public mood is still to put into writing essential rights and liberties, and to distrust governments' traditional capacity for acting within checks and balances.