The national poll carried out for Prospect by YouGov has delivered an astonishing result: 74 per cent of people think that Britain spends too much on welfare and should cut benefits. That represents a revolution in attitudes in just a few decades, never mind in the century since the beginnings of the modern welfare state.
Does that represent a hardening of hearts? Is it a nationwide lurch to the political right? Not really. People are not against the welfare state itself. They clearly regard the principles of the system put in place in 1906, and developed by William Beveridge 70 years ago, as intertwined with British values. They want to keep its protections for the poorest and weakest—specifically, the elderly and the disabled. Any politician who ignored that message would be foolish.
But a huge majority has lost faith, as Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, puts it, that politicians are giving the right money to the right people for the right reasons. People are suspicious of illegal immigrants, of single parents, and in a cascade of pejoratives, of “scroungers,” the “feckless” and the “workshy.” As Peter Kellner notes, the postwar system was “created in an era of near-full employment where seven out of ten Britons were working class, few of whom paid income tax, and where those who lived long enough to reach retirement age generally died not long after.” There is a strong sense now that we are not all in this together.