Support for less government?


There has already been plenty written about the latest British Social Attitudes survey. Many, like Tim Montgomerie, have noted that the survey shows a shift towards the political right. Mark Wallace, meanwhile, has talked about ‘Libertarian Britain’. They are both half right. Firstly, the survey does show a significant swing towards the Conservative Party, which is more popular than Labour for the first time in 20 years. And secondly, the survey does show a more relaxed attitude towards homosexuality and family structures (though not towards cannabis use) than has been previously been the case.

But I’m not sure I’d describe the results of the survey as signifying either a move to ‘the right’ or a libertarian nation. The key figures, to me, are the ones cited in this week’s Economist, on support for tax and public spending. Basically, 50 percent of those surveyed wanted the state to remain the same size (that is, taxes and spending should remain at their current levels). 39 percent want a bigger state (higher taxes and more spending). Just 8 percent, meanwhile, support a smaller state (i.e. lower taxes and lower spending).

On the plus side, these figures are moving in the right direction. 62 percent of people wanted a bigger state in 1997. Meanwhile, support for a smaller state is higher than it has been since the height of Thatcherism in 1983. But still, the idea that 90 percent of people think the state should remain as it is, or grow even bigger, is not one I find very comforting.

But on the other hand, all polls can be misleading, and this one is probably no exception. Perhaps a more accurate reflection on the results would be to say that most people are happy with the state providing the range of services that it currently provides, and that they would rather not have lower taxes if the price of that were fewer services. However, if they could keep the range of public services currently on offer but also have tax cuts, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they would go for such an option. And that, of course, is perfectly possible – partly because many of the things the state currently are not really ‘public services’ at all (most of Britain’s ‘bureaucracy’ is both unpopular and pointless), and partly because cutting taxes does not necessarily mean reducing revenue.

So how’s this for a populist agenda: tax rises will be avoided by focusing public spending on core services while getting rid of the rest, and targeted tax cuts will be used to boost the economy without compromising those core services. You could argue that the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests such a programme would be supported by more than 50 percent of the country, more than enough to deliver a very sizeable parliamentary majority.

One last thing to be hopeful about – while the survey does not appear to show a significant desire for ‘small government’ or, indeed, ‘libertarianism’ is also indicates a clear swing away from redistributive socialism. Less than 40 percent think government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor (compared with 51 percent in 1994). Meanwhile only 21 percent think unemployment benefits should be higher today, compared with 53 percent in 1994.