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More ‘barometer’ than ‘turning point’: Major new report on the impact of the pandemic on social and political attitudes

21 February 2022

The pandemic proved to be a barometer of existing social and political attitudes rather than a ‘turning point’ that resulted in a sharp change in the public mood. This is the key conclusion of a major study of public opinion during the pandemic, led by Professor Sir John Curtice at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and undertaken in collaboration with Professor Dominic Abrams at the University of Kent and Curtis Jessop at NatCen.

In a report published today, Sir John and his colleagues compare the results of two dedicated surveys NatCen ran in June 2021 and July 2020, along with the findings of the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in October 2020, and the results of nearly 40 years of data collected by BSA since the 1980s.

The research identifies key patterns and changes in attitudes that were in evidence before the pandemic and that continued during it. It suggests these trends may have ensured a more favourable climate of opinion for some of the economic measures that were taken to support people during lockdown.

A pre-pandemic trend of a more favourable attitude towards welfare for those of working age was maintained

  • The proportion who agreed that ‘if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet’ fell from 53% (on average) between 2007 and 2015 to 39% between 2017 and 2019. During the pandemic that shift held firm, with 36% agreeing while 35% now disagree.
  • Those who disagreed that ‘many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help’ rose from 29% between 2002-12 to 42% between 2017-19. This new outlook held steady during the pandemic, with 44% disagreeing, while 18% now agree.
  • Between 2002 and 2012, 27% disagreed that ‘most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another’, but by 2017-19, as many as 39% did so. Again, the change held steady during the pandemic, with 40% disagreeing, while 23% now agree.

Concern about inequality continued to be widespread during the pandemic, though with only limited signs that it increased

  • Between 2017 and 2019, 60% agreed (on average) that ‘ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’, similar to the 59% who did so between 2008 and 2015. During the pandemic, the figure edged up slightly to 64%.
  • Meanwhile, during the pandemic, two-thirds (66%) agreed that there is ‘one law for the rich and one law for the poor’, up from 58% in the years 2017-19 and the highest level since 1997.
  • But, at 43%, the proportion agreeing that ‘government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well off’ was similar to the 42% who agreed between 2015 and 2019.

So far at least, there has only been a limited reaction against the sharp increase in public spending during the pandemic

  • Prior to the pandemic, the proportion saying the government should ‘increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits’ increased from 35% (on average) between 2009 and 2014 to 57% between 2017 and 2019. Much, though not all, of that shift is still in evidence, with 51% expressing that view during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, despite the public disquiet that has sometimes been evident about those who broke lockdown rules, a trend towards more liberal attitudes towards the law and authority largely continued during the pandemic

  • Prior to the pandemic, the proportion who agreed that ‘people who break the law should be given stiffer sentences’ fell from 80% (on average) between 1998 and 2014 to 67% in 2018-19. That proportion has since fallen even further, to 62%, in our most recent survey.
  • After averaging 83% between 1993 and 2012, the proportion who agreed that ‘schools should teach children to obey authority’ fell to 71% by 2017-19. During the pandemic, it fell further to 65%.
  • Between 1999 and 2014, 71% (on average) agreed that ‘young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’. By 2017-19 the figure had fallen to 58%, and stood (on average) at 54% across our three pandemic surveys.
  • However, although still very much a minority view, the pandemic did witness an apparent increase in opposition to allowing protest marches and demonstrations against government action. In our pandemic surveys, 27% said that ‘protest marches and demonstrations’ against a government action should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ not be allowed, up from 20% in 2016.

Professor Sir John Curtice, Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “Despite the dramatic impact that the pandemic has had on everyone’s lives, rather than proving to be a ‘turning point’ in social attitudes, the pandemic has been more of a ‘barometer’ of patterns and trends that were already in evidence.

The public had already become more supportive of providing welfare for those of working age, and this may well have helped ensure public backing for the very substantial support provided via furlough to those whose jobs were at risk and the increase in universal credit for those who did find themselves out of work. But attitudes towards welfare did not shift significantly further during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the debate about the inequality revealed by the pandemic appears to have reflected a level of concern that has long been apparent in public opinion, rather than signalled any markedly increased willingness to do something about it.

And although ‘fear of contagion’ might have been expected to increase support for adherence to the law, authority and social norms, an existing trend towards a more liberal outlook continued during the pandemic. This perhaps helps explain why for much of the pandemic there has been – and still is – a debate about how much the law should be used to regulate people’s behaviour. 

In any event, it looks as though the landscape of public opinion that policy-makers will face after the pandemic will be much the same as the one that they faced beforehand, including not least on the perennial debate about what to do about inequality.”

ENDS

The full report, “A Turning Point in History? Social and Political Attitudes in Britain in the Wake of the Pandemic” is published here.

For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel, Communications Manager, National Centre for Social Research
oliver.paynel@natcen.ac.uk
Direct: 0207 549 9550
Mobile: 07734 960 071

Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications, National Centre for Social Research
katie.crabb@natcen.ac.uk
Direct: 0207 549 8504

Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to make life better through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

2. The costs of collecting the 2020 and 2021 NatCen Panel data and of undertaking the analysis reported here are funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 initiative (grant no. ES/V009788/1).

3. This research is based on two surveys conducted in the UK with 2,413 adults in July 2020 and 2,217 adults in June 2021 via the NatCen mixed mode random probability panel, as well as the results of the 2020 British Social Attitudes survey conducted in autumn 2020.

4. The NatCen Panel comprises people who were originally interviewed (face to face) as part of NatCen’s annual British Social Attitudes survey, and who have agreed to answer occasional follow-up surveys either online or on the phone.

5. The authors are Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research; Dominic Abrams, Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, University of Kent; and Curtis Jessop, Research Director, National Centre for Social Research. Responsibility for the views expressed here lies solely with the authors.