Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
“You know there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics”, said Jim Callaghan, the last Prime Minister to be forced to the polls by losing a vote of no confidence, during that 1979 campaign. “It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher”.
Forty years on, the think-tank Onward detects another “sea change” in attitudes, away from freedom and towards security. The Onward report, ‘The Politics of Belonging’, targets libertarian “freedom fighters”, perhaps worrying that Boris Johnson’s liberal instincts may give them more of a hearing than Theresa May ever did.
Onward do present compelling evidence of broad public scepticism that the free market is working fairly. The public are sceptical about globalisation, about privatisation, what technology means for working life – and whether the rich have earned their rewards.
Leave out party brands and the reputations of political leaders, and public intuitions lean leftwards, across generations, social classes and referendum divides. Lecturing those who were born decades later about the Winter of Discontent will preach only to the converted; those who believe in the market are going to have to do rather more to engage with those who feel that opportunities to earn and own do not extend to them.
The findings on social attitudes are a mixed bag. Presented with a set of binary choices by the pollsters, people would prioritise “security” to “freedom” by two to one – but prefer “change” to “tradition” too (with the over-55s narrowly disagreeing), despite regarding the growth of cities as rather more a bad than good thing. Asked to attribute lower marriage rates to either a decline in family commitments or more personal choice, respondents chose the former, combined with a strikingly broad consensus across generations that gender equality has not gone nearly far enough yet.
The poll framing sometimes steers pretty hard: respondents unsurprisingly prefer “gradual change that preserves what matters” to “embracing radical change” (with no countervailing reason cited).
Frustratingly, the Onward report does nothing to try to stand up the central claim of a ‘sea change’ in attitudes, since it contains no information of whether or how any of these attitudes have changed over time. This snapshot poll of 2019 attitudes can offer eye-catching findings about what people think now and maybe some clues, in comparing views across generations, about the direction of travel.
But the Onward narrative depends heavily on an untested assumption that “freedom” would have trumped “security” had the public been asked that across the last few decades. That premise appears implausible.
Public attitudes can be cyclical – favouring more attention to inequality and public services when Margaret Thatcher was in power, before becoming more sceptical of taxation and redistribution under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The dramatic dip in the public salience of immigration since the 2016 referendum may reflect a similar “thermostatic” dynamic. What is almost certainly the case is that the British public in 2019 are as socially liberal as they have ever been, while having never been nearly so socially liberal as the political and professional classes.
Some attitudes shifted slowly. The death penalty may have been abolished in 1968, but three-quarters of people approved of it into in the last 1980s, before support finally dipped below 50 per cent in 2014. Attitudes to gay rights changed later and much faster: two-thirds of people feel same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all” but fewer than a quarter held that view when Tony Blair came to power. These social changes sometimes accelerate or mildly slow down, but the long-term sea-change towards these foundational liberties does appear irreversible.
Casting Thatcherism as a libertarian project leaves a lot out. The Iron Lady may have carried a copy of Hayek in her handbag, but she combined economic liberalism with a vigorous social conservatism, underestimating the tensions between these two strands of her project. British Conservatives no longer fight all of the cultural battles that she did. Legislating “section 28” against the pro-lesbian “loony left” has given way to declaring solidarity with those celebrating Pride.
The British right is also keen to disavow the ugly overt stoking of racial grievances that increasingly characterises Donald Trump’s Republican takeover – without yet fully unravelling the puzzle of why Tory suggestion that commitments to family and faith should appeal to socially conservative ethnic minority voters has often been received with mistrust.
If Trump’s populism offers an identity politics of grievance and resentment, a new politics of belonging on the British right might eschew an arid “bring backery” and attempt the more challenging task of a moderate, post-liberal communitarianism, now seeking conserve liberal advances against discrimination, while meeting the appetite for shared identity and integration in a liberal society. If the Onward report is structured around binary choices, the appetite for freedom has always depended on a foundation of security, as reflected in responses to both 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008.
The shadow of an imminent general election looms over this report. If two-year parliaments become the norm, longer-term relationship-building which might expand electoral coalitions in time risk becoming a deferrable luxury.
Few Conservatives anticipated the scale of generational polarisation which arose out of Brexit in 2017 – and Onward have been at the forefront of worrying about the long-term existential headache that this creates. Yet the party may find itself in a snap Brexit election pragmatically conceding the cities and the under-40s graduate vote to their opponents, this time at least.
This volatile political context puts a more foundational question to a politics of belonging. Is this mainly an instrumental exercise in party strategy and vote maximisation – or is there a broader social motive, which might seek to reduce the intensity of political polarisation too?
There is an appetite for a politics of belonging in a society as anxious about social fragmentation and division as Britain today – especially one which seeks to close the identity and contact gaps between the towns and the cities, across the generations, social classes, and ethnic and faith groups. Politicians across all parties recognise that by using the rhetoric of One Nation in polarising times – but may decide they need to fight and win one more campaign before embarking on the task of trying to bring people together again afterwards.