The more we alter, the less we seem to change

Social Attitudes
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The Independent Online
It's fashionable, close to the Millennium, to bang on about change, onrushing, inexorable, global. Change is exciting. It sells Demos pamphlets, and newspapers, too - we are great lighters of candles at the shrine of novelty and its fellow saint, youth.

Reality, however, is pretty stolid. People out there - you - do not readily change. Youth, in every generation, seeks to be a bit different and, in every generation, ends up a few years later remarkably like its progenitors. Swopping jobs, like swopping spouses, remain minority pursuits. As for altering opinions and views of the world, conservatism rules OK.

But not Toryism. For nearly 20 years the Conservatives had their chance to shape the nation. Mrs Thatcher grabbed it in tender places but neither hearts nor public mind followed. The Tories bribed (council house sales, privatisation issues) and they cajoled. Their pals in the American-owned press (eg The Times) hammered away, invoking the Zeitgeist on a daily basis.

The public, however, did not buy. Today we have the evidence of the latest annual British Social Attitudes series. Question after question compares beliefs and opinions at the end of the Conservative era with those in the early Eighties and time and again the pollsters find the impact of Thatcherite Toryism on what people feel has been remarkably - and surprisingly - limited.

Take the much-vaunted phenomenon of "Thatcher's children" - those born in the late Sixties and Seventies who came of age during her ascendancy. They turn out not to have been branded by the experience. A little more materialistic, perhaps, but otherwise they are only faintly different from older members of the population, especially in their broad gauge collectivism. They are, it's true, more pro-European than their elders and more critical of the monarchy but these are hardly results Lady Thatcher herself would have wished for.

Of course what people say they think and what they do (ie vote Tory in successive general elections until 1997) are not entirely on all fours. Attitude surveying is a kind of connoisseurship of hypocrisy. But Social and Community Planning Research, which mounts the survey, is recognised as the most rigorous monitor of core public sentiment.

Each year, it asks a national sample the same questions. The result is a reputable picture of change. Or, as it often turns out, stasis. The British were, and remain, social democratic and collectivist in their leanings: they want government to provide health and welfare and, within limits, intervene at large in the workplace, in the environment, on the streets and on television (to control sexy and violent images).

They are, it is true, less keen on government intervention in economic life than when Jim Callaghan fell - to that extent the New Right has won a great and permanent victory. But on closer inspection the public turns out not to be ideologically opposed to government involvement in the private sector, just pragmatic. The researchers have turned up signs that the public - increasingly worried about employer power - might even favour government legislation in favour of European-style works councils, giving staff a bigger say in their firms, hardly a favourite Tory project.

What ultimately is clear is that the ambitious programme of social reindoctrination announced by Keith Joseph in the Seventies, when Mrs Thatcher took over as leader of the Tories, has conclusively failed. Ordinary people continue to reject the advice of Frederick Hayek and the economists by continuing to apply tests of fairness to the world around them, including - and especially - the place they work. Hayek and Thatcher may have thought social justice a nonsense; for most people it remains a daily calibration.

People are more suspicious than ever of business (the questions are couched in terms of "big business"). They have measured their firms and their managers and found them too often to behave unfairly. Staff increasingly feel they lack a voice at work. There is, it's true, some association between these attitudes and the economic cycle. A protracted period of prosperity might assuage the anxieties - it might be that if Labour's economic policy ambitions were realised people would end up happier with capitalism than under the Tories.

Of course some attitudes have shifted during the past 20 years. Post- Tory Britain is more materialistic, more take-the-money-and-run. There has been a small rise - take a bow Peter Lilley - in numbers identifying welfare claimants as "undeserving". But, still, this view is held by less than a third of the population.

As for the unemployed themselves, the surveys say their core attitudes to work are now and always have been the same as those in jobs. In other words they want money and see a job as the way to get it - they don't need the stings and scorpions of benefits reductions to make them want to work.

Post-Tory Britain bites its nails more. You could read some of these BSA tables and conclude that we do now live in an age of anxiety. People tell the pollsters of their worries about their lack of commitment at work and their fear about the future value of their homes - it will take many more years before the attitudinal legacy of the 1989 housing crash is extirpated. But they also tell the pollsters that their belief in the necessity of work is stronger than ever, and that they are as keen as ever on buying their own homes rather than renting them.

But there is scant support here for the kind of apocalyptic stuff some offered by the think-tanks about "post politics" and the like. The British have, undeniably, been registering growing discontent with the political system - the pollsters frame their questions in terms of trust. But the downward trend in appreciation of MPs, councillors and the rest interestingly bottomed out in 1996 and has since reversed (this, of course, is before Formula One). Meanwhile, growing distrust has been accompanied in the tables by growing support for Constitutional reform - itself an entirely rational response which indicates deep-seated faith in the capacity of the system to change for the better.

There is ammunition here for Labour reformers of the House of Lords and advocates of Freedom of Information legislation. Barely a third of the population, however, supports PR and related changes in electoral arrangements. There are limits to how much change is tolerable to Britain's great band of stoics.