The Way We Think Now

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Review of 'British Social Attitudes', National Centre for Social Research, Sage £37.50

There are always nuggets of fascinating information in the annual British Social Attitudes surveys. What is interesting about this year's is the themes that develop through some of the studies. One is the growing liberalism expressed by the findings on race, sexuality and drugs. The other is the gap found between some of New Labour's flagship policies and popular opinion.

When asked what are the 'most effective measures to improve secondary education' only 3 percent answered 'more emphasis on exams and tests'. Instead the top priorities for people were smaller class sizes (27 percent) and better quality teachers (24 percent). As for funding for higher education, 94 percent of respondents believed that all or some students should get grants. Again on selection, less than half the population support selection in secondary schools.

On drugs, tobacco and alcohol come third and fourth after only heroin and crack cocaine as drugs seen to be most harmful to regular users. The proportion of people saying that smoking cannabis should be legalised rose from 12 percent in 1983 to 41 percent in 2001. The legal harassment of sufferers from diseases like MS who find that cannabis is the only drug to give them any relief from chronic pain is obviously highly unpopular. So nearly half (46 percent) think that doctors should 'definitely be allowed' to prescribe cannabis for medical reasons, and a further 40 percent think that it should 'probably' be allowed.

Young people have traditionally responded with more liberal attitudes towards drugs, sexuality and race. The question raised in the report is, will they deteriorate into narrow-minded bigots when they get older? Thankfully the British Social Attitudes surveys over the years show that there is what they call a 'period effect' that all of society is to some extent affected by the change in ideas on these issues. Each new generation begins with a more tolerant attitude, so there is a deeper change going on: 'Younger people do not lose their liberalism as they age--nowadays they actually get more liberal.'

On race the percentage of people who believe they are not at all prejudiced has grown from 65 percent in 1985 to 75 percent in 2001. Again levels of racism have fallen across the ages, apart from the very oldest group, not just among young people.

The most dramatic shift is on attitudes to sexuality. When asked about homosexuality 70 percent said it was 'always or mostly wrong' in 1985. In 2001 this had fallen to 47 percent, and those who said there was nothing wrong at all about homosexuality grew from 13 percent to a third.

The chapter entitled 'Where Have All the Voters Gone?' should be required reading for New Labour strategists. This looks at why just 59.1 percent of voters went to the polls in the 2001 general election. This was the lowest turnout since 1918. The experience of living under New Labour has taken its toll. Researchers normally record a high level of political trust after a general election. After 1997 a third said they felt such trust. After the election of 2001 only a quarter felt the same. What is interesting is that nearly half of the electorate who said they had no real party identification were won to vote for Labour in 1997 in the landslide that got rid of the Tories (47 percent). By 2001 such voters had lost that enthusiasm, with only 17 percent voting.

Bill Morris expressed the survey's strongest finding when he said last month, 'The dividing line between our parties seems to be blurred if not erased altogether.' A full 44 percent of people agreed with him, saying there was 'not much' difference between the parties. This is a new phenomenon. In 1964, 48 percent said there was a 'great difference' between the political parties. In 2001 this had fallen to only 17 percent!