Fewer than one in ten people support the government’s cuts, according to the 28th annual British Social Attitudes Survey published in last week.
Over half of those questioned thought that taxation and spending should remain at the same levels, and only 8 percent said they supported cuts.
The survey also found that three in four voters believe that the gap between rich and poor is too large.
The main media interpretation of the survey is that it shows hardening attitudes towards the poor and the unemployed. Commentators on the left and right point to figures showing that many people think that benefits are too high, or that they discourage people from seeking work.
The prevalence of these myths is not surprising after years of rhetoric from both Labour and the Tories against those living on benefits.
But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Other questions asked in the survey show continued support for the idea of the welfare state.
So 82 percent of those asked thought that child poverty was a very important issue—and 79 percent believed it was mainly the government’s responsibility to tackle it. The government should also take responsibility for paying for the care needs of elderly people, according to 75 percent of those polled.
Similarly, 88 percent thought that looking after those who fell ill should be mainly the responsibility of the government. And 84 percent thought this also applied to the long-term sick—despite constant hype about “sicknote Britain”.
Another myth is that the survey shows a lack of interest in climate change. It is true that the number of people swayed by the arguments of climate “sceptics” has grown.
But three in four people thought that businesses should be forced to respect the environment. And over half thought that solar, wind and water power should be the priority for energy policy.
The British Social Attitudes Survey has been running for nearly three decades. Throughout that time it has shown a long-term trend of more progressive attitudes to sexual liberation and the family, as well as a growing rejection of racism and homophobia.
This continues today. So almost 70 percent of people say they are not at all racially prejudiced and fewer than one in five believe that homosexual sex is always wrong.
Over 60 percent think that contraception should be more easily available to teenagers, even if they are under 16. Nearly four in five believe that it is alright for a couple to live together without intending to get married. And just one in ten believe that a man belongs in the workplace and the woman in the home.
The real story of the survey is how little the ideological onslaught of the Tories and their allies has been able to shift people’s attitudes.