The latest British Social Attitudes Survey is a blow for the left. 54% of respondents think employment benefits are too high, 63% blame parents for child poverty and fewer people are willing to give up their own hard-earned cash to reduce the income gap. People appear to be becoming more individualistic. As Penny Young, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, says, ‘In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year's report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?’
The results are a reminder that in hard times it becomes more difficult to make the case for tackling shared problems. When resources are tight, people are concerned with protecting the little they have. But the results of this year’s survey are not only a concern for progressives. The thread of individualism that runs through this year’s survey presents real challenges for the Government’s Big Society vision of stronger, more resourceful communities in which people work together towards common goals.
There are two lessons for Government here. First, its emphasis on individual blame (e.g. ‘welfare scroungers’ or ‘greedy public sector workers’) as a means of building public support for austerity has had the effect of damaging social ties and made it harder to persuade people to work together to tackle social problems. In this sense, the Government's own rhetoric is destroying the ground on which a Big Society should be built.
Secondly, the Government has characterised civil society and the state as being at odds. For Government, public services are themselves partly an expression of a dependency culture and a suppression of the ability of citizens to generate bottom-up solutions to public problems. In reality, the reverse is true. Whilst there is space on both the left and the right for the argument that the skills, ideas and enthusiasm of citizens and charities need to play a stronger role in society, the state and public service institutions have a crucial role to play in helping communities thrive. From funding charities and local groups to commissioning more inclusive services. This was the strong message from charities and public service representatives present at the launch of a recent RSA report on public service reform, Communities Connected. Citizens, civil society organisations and public services are interdependent. The answer lies in finding new ways of working together to tackle challenges in education, health and social care, not breaking these different institutions apart from one another.
The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows the ties and institutions that bind us to one another are losing traction. People are becoming more self-involved. If the Government does not change course and start emphasising the values, institutions and rights we have in common, people will become more individualistic and atomised, and our ‘big’ society will start to feel very, very small.