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How fair is British society? Six in ten think wealth differences are unfair and less than half think people ‘get what they deserve’

26 November 2020

Most people think differences in wealth in Britain are ‘unfairly large’ and less than half say people ‘get what they deserve’, according to new research published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The research, from this year’s British Social Attitudes report, explores people’s attitudes to justice and fairness in society using data collected between late 2018 and early 2019 as part of the European Social Survey, which also asked participants the same questions in 30 other European countries.

In Britain, a majority across all income brackets think differences in wealth are ‘unfairly large’. Overall six in ten take this view (59%), while one in five (20%) think wealth differences are fair and one in six (16%) think they are ‘unfairly small’.

Despite the strength of views on this issue, attitudes in Britain are not very different from those in the other large Western European democracies. Most people feel wealth differences are ‘unfairly large’ in Germany (59%), France (57%), Spain (62%) and Italy (68%).

Interestingly, people with higher levels of education were more likely to say wealth differences were unfairly large – despite being likely to have more wealth themselves.

When asked about fairness in politics and society more broadly, views were more mixed:

  • Around four in ten (39%) agreed people generally ‘get what they deserve in society’, while 35% disagreed.
  • Women were significantly less likely to say people get what they deserve – one third (33%) of women take this view compared with almost half of men (45%).
  • Around a quarter (24%) say the political system does “a lot” or “a great deal” to ensure everyone has a fair chance to participate in politics, while 31% say it does “not a lot” or “very little”.
  • Just one in ten (11%) whose main income comes from benefits think the political system does a lot to ensure everyone can take part in politics.

The report also found that people who think society is unjust or unfair are more likely to engage in political activity. Those who are happiest with the status quo, on the other hand, were least likely to be engaged in political activities, ranging from voting to protesting to contacting a politician or posting about politics online.

Isabel Taylor, Research Director at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “People who believe British society is unfair or unjust are less satisfied with the way politics works, and have lower levels of trust in public institutions. But feelings of injustice are also linked with being politically active – and, potentially, to a desire to change things. With that said, it is concerning that the British political system is failing to make sure the most disadvantaged in society feel they have a fair opportunity to take part in politics.”

 Download the Fairness and justice in Britain report from our British Social Attitudes website.