Britain’s quiet revolution

Bronwen Maddox introduces the March issue of Prospect
February 22, 2012

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. David Goodhart attributes this decline in solidarity partly to the growth in diversity. David Davis, in a powerful attack on crony capitalism, argues that ordinary people feel left behind.

Pronouncing that other people should receive less in benefits, or should pay more tax, is hardly a new human reflex, as Nick Carn drily points out in a letter in response to last month’s cover story, “Tax the Aged.” That story provoked a storm, as our letters pages show. Many furiously argued that they had paid taxes all their lives and deserved the pensions and other benefits they had long been promised and were now enjoying. Others ruefully acknowledged the force of the argument (Prospect, February) by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which springs from simple arithmetic about the implications of an ageing population, a question now overshadowing western democracies. The US presidential campaign has so far produced few answers, amid an astonishing shower of pronouncements about the nation’s decline.

But it is not all gloom. Our poll suggests a possible compromise between voters and governments, through which adept politicians may manage to scramble, although how long public opinion will remain solid is another question. People want an overhaul of welfare, which targets benefits more narrowly onto those they feel are truly deserving. Few rush to defend universal benefits going to more affluent pensioners or higher-rate taxpayers. That is a demand not to jettison the welfare state, but to return to the central principles on which it was founded.