The July 2012 Edition of Ipsos MORI ‘Understanding Society’ landed on my desk the other week, and I’ve finally got round to reading the section on public opinion of public service reform. I was surprised and yet heartened by some of the findings:
- 65% of the public think that government and public services have tried to do too much and people should take more responsibility for their own lives
- Perceptions of the ideal society are slowly changing:
- In 1988 58% of people said the ideal society was one which emphasised the social and collective provision of welfare compared to 42% who thought the ideal society was one where individuals are encouraged to look after themselves
- By 2012, these had changed to 49% and 51% respectively – i.e. now more people think the ideal society is one where individuals are encouraged to look after themselves
- New generations are increasingly sceptical about welfare being beneficial, and even older generations have seen falls in support for it:
- In 1998, just under 50% of those born pre-1945 and those born between 1945 and 1965 agreed with the statement that ‘the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes’.
- By 2009, these percentages had fallen to 39% and 32%, respectively.
- Over the same period, this unfettered support for welfare had fallen for Generation X (those born between 1966 and 1979) from 30% to 25%
- In the past five years, Generation Y (1980-2000) has seen support for the same statement fall from 28% to 13%
The report concludes that ‘over the last twenty-five years or so there has been a clear shift away from a more collectivist, welfare-orientated society, towards one that encourages individuals to look after themselves’.
This probably explains why the Coalition Government’s attempts to curb welfare spending have been so popular. But it also suggests that the public are slowly coming round to the idea that big government = diminished individuals, which underpins the Big Society agenda and more broadly the classical liberal tradition of the conservative movement. This should give Conservatives more confidence in making arguments for a smaller state, and reforming welfare to be a genuine safety net for the poorest in our society. As we’ve shown in Small is Best, there is nothing to fear from limited government.