Above: Britain’s favourite Britons. The Queen comes in second place, while politicians make up the bottom of the table
The typical Briton loves our countryside, National Health Service and David Attenborough, but thinks immigrants, welfare scroungers and yobs are letting Britain down.
Overall, YouGov’s latest survey for Prospect suggests that we are preparing for the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations in a nervous, small-c conservative mood. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, our progress has been uninterrupted by revolution, invasion or occupation for some centuries. This helps to explain our reverence towards those features of our national life that suggest reassuring permanence. When people are asked to pick the best features of Britain today, three of their top four are our countryside, history and monarchy. The fourth, the NHS, is of course a more recent invention; however, as Andrew Lansley has discovered, it is now regarded with conservative veneration in the sense that politicians tamper with it at their peril.
Our present economic problems have narrowed our outlook further. Down the years, people in different ideological locations have been stirred by dreams of, variously, a low-tax society, an end to class divisions, greater tolerance, and a clean, green future. But when YouGov invited people to imagine a “British dream” (nodding with due humility to the American version), we found that these come way down the list of today’s national ambitions.
Rather, we want the flipside of our perceived current failings. We yearn for more rewards for hard work, fewer immigrants and more honest politicians, journalists and police officers. If there is a British dream, it is less about marching confidently towards Churchill’s sunlit uplands than clambering out of the hole we fear we are in.
No wonder politicians fill the bottom three of the list of living Britons we most admire: Tony Blair, David Cameron and Tony Benn. Only Margaret Thatcher avoids the relegation zone, coming eighth out of 15. (We derived our list from responses to an earlier survey, when we asked people, unprompted, to nominate candidates they personally admire.)
David Attenborough just pips the Queen to first place; they are followed closely by Richard Branson and Stephen Hawking. Perhaps these names offer a clue to a sub-conscious (or, in some cases, conscious) belief that Britain could be Great again if politicians got out of the way. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy should be terrified, if unsurprised, that a mere 5 per cent consider our political system to be one of best things about today’s Britain.
Those broad-brush observations conceal some notable differences:
• The over-60s feel far more strongly than the under-40s that to fulfil the “British dream” we need fewer immigrants and departure from the European Union.
• Four of our five female nominees for greatest living Briton attract more support from women than men: the Queen herself, Judi Dench, the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) and Joanna Lumley. But the fifth, Margaret Thatcher, appeals more to men than women.
• The over-60s—that is, those people who have lived throughout the Queen’s reign, tend to say that Britain has changed for the worse since she came to the throne; the under-25s disagree by a margin of three-to-one.