British social attitudes report finds trust is in freefall

Team spirit isn’t what it once was in the UK. Defence Images

Perceptions of how well most major British institutions are run have plunged over the past three decades. The 30th British Social Attitudes report, published today, reports decreases in public satisfaction with the government, banks, the press, the police, the BBC, and the Church of England. Only the NHS and trade unions have seen increased satisfaction.

The figures are most significant in the banking sector. The report found 19% of the UK population thinks that banks are well run, compared with 90% thirty years ago. This enormous fall has, of course, been driven by the 2008 financial crisis, but there is evidence of a trend too: the figures had already fallen to 63% by 1994.

This figure does not correlate to a local level, however. Elaine Kempson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol, says these figures have not affected habits.

“Public attitudes to the banking sector don’t mirror or dictate attitudes to specific banks,” she said. “General opinion doesn’t manifest itself in local behaviour. People have many more opinions about banking in general than they do about a particular bank - and these opinions are fuelled by the media.”

Attitudes towards the press have similarly been falling - although not nearly as sharply. Satisfaction here has seen a more steady downturn - from 47% in 1994, to 39% in 2009, to 27% in 2012. Like the banking sector, this is a trend that was certainly exacerbated by events - in this case, the 2011 phone hacking scandal.

Political dinosaurs

In politics we see a similar situation. However, here the BSA reports a clear generational element to the trend, indicating more long-term and pervasive effects.

Now only 18% of the population trust governments to put the nation’s needs above those of those of a political party, down from 38% in 1986. This is mirrored by a decline in party loyalty: in 1983, 87% of the population identified with a political party. Now this figure stands at 76%.

This decline becomes even clearer when you look at how strongly people identify with whichever political party they support. While in 1987 nearly half (48%) said they were not a strong supporter of a party, or did not support any party at all, now more than two-thirds (69%) fall into this category.

Conversely, more people claim to have an interest in politics, and more feel that they can influence politics. In 1986, 29% said that they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of an interest. The figure now stands at 36%. Matthew Flinders, Professor of Parliamentary Governance at Sheffield, explained how this apparent paradox manifests.

“You have to be very careful about how you interpret this data,“ he said.

“Britain is not disengaged from politics. But the current political model is entirely unsuited to the modern political world.”

“There is a problem of political engagement amongst young people. This is not to say that they are not political. Political interest is instead being invested in other areas.”

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The apparent increasing disaffection with politics can be explained by the population’s increasingly diverse interests - and the multiplying avenues through which to express them. “Social media, online petitions, pressure groups – everyone feels as if they have an opinion about everything,” Flinders said. “This is counter-productive from a mainstream political point of view.”

Politicians have failed to keep up with this ever-diversifying environment, according to Flinders. They are constantly assaulted by various demands, and feel the need to appease ever-multiplying groups of people.

“They’re like dinosaurs from the 19th century trying to play a game they don’t really understand. They need to be far more flexible and dynamic, whilst being willing to give the public hard truths.”

Increasing individualism

Over the past 30 years, the hold of that the country’s religious institutions have on the British public has similarly weakened. In 1983, 69% classified themselves as “belonging to a religion”, whereas in 2012 this figure was 52%.

This fall was not spread over all religions, however. The drop is driven by the declining popularity of the Church of England. Those who affiliate themselves with the Anglican Church has dropped from 40% to 20% in the same period.

Linda Woodhead, Director of Religion and Society at the University of Lancaster, said, “11% of 20 year olds identify themselves as Anglican, compared to 50% of over 60s”. The Church of England, like political parties, is failing to retain or attract young people.

However, the drops in these figures do not signal a correlative increase in levels of atheism. “In fact, levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20%” Woodhead explained. “People are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.”

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“Alternative religions or forms of spirituality have grown vastly since 1980, when levels would have been less than 1% of the population. Now, over 20% of the population describe themselves as "spiritual” and believe in some sort of spirit or life force. And belief in a soul, angels and an afterlife have been growing – so it’s a complex picture. Many British people keep open their belief in God or “something more,” but have turned their back on religious institutions and leaders."

Britons have not grown any less spiritual, but in line with their relationship with other institutions, more individualistic.

This is mirrored by the increasingly relaxed attitudes towards personal relationships. In 1983, 50% of the public thought same-sex relations were “always wrong”, whereas now that figure has dropped to 22%. A similar trend is seen in people’s opinions about marriage. In 1989 70% of people agreed that “people who want children ought to get married”; now this figure stands at 42%.

In line with this decreasing sense of national community, attitudes towards social welfare for disadvantaged groups in society have hardened. The proportion believing it is the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed has fallen from 81% in 1985, to 59% now.

However, there has been an increase since 2011 in the view that cutting benefits “would damage too many people’s lives”: close to half (47%) now hold this view. In 2011 it was 42%. In addition, 34% of people support more spending on benefits, even if it means higher taxes, up from 28% in 2011.

Nick Bailey at the University of Glasgow commented on this increase. “If that’s gone up again that’s really quite significant,” he said. “That’s been sliding for a long time. It suggests people may be beginning to see the effects of welfare reform. The looming impact of the bedroom tax, capping of total benefits, the drive to push people off incapacity benefits could be what are driving this turnaround.”

People’s wider sense of affiliation is also on the decrease. In 1991 77% of the population wanted Britain to stay in the EU. Now, a record 67% of people either want to leave, or want the EU to become less powerful.

The general decline of affiliation with national (and international) bodies is perhaps inevitable in context of the increasingly diverse options that the modern world has. Events in the public eye have resulted in distrust in the financial and media sectors, and the scope for involvement in diverse interests has led to a decline in popularity for the principle UK political parties and religions. How we respond to this is in question. But it is clear that these institutions need to recognise and adapt to the increasingly individualistic nature of the public domain.