How we think Britain has changed

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 3:49 AM GMT+0

Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton takes place 30 years after Prince Charles married Diana. YouGov has conducted the most detailed survey on how the public thinks Britain has changed over those three decades. It’s the first survey in a new partnership with Cambridge University to provide and analyse fresh data on an unprecedented scale on how we live and what we think.

Today we are releasing some of our initial findings. This is how we think life in Britain has changed since 1981:

As those figures show, clear majorities feel things have improved on only two of the 11 facets of national life that we tested – and deteriorated on six of them. Only 42% of us think Britain is wealthier, even though national income has almost doubled in real terms since 1981. And two-thirds of us think Britain is less healthy, even though every indicator of health, including life expectancy, has improved. To some extent, nostalgia causes many of us to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. No wonder we distrust politicians and resent higher taxes: we don’t think they have delivered a better Britain in the 30 years since Charles and Diana walked up the aisle.

In one sense, however, the data does large reflect reality. 69% of us think we have become open minded; and by a narrower 43-38% margin, we believe Britain is more tolerant. This is borne out by comparisons with surveys conducted in the 1980s: far fewer of us now think that sex before marriage and homosexuality are wrong. In fact, more people think its morally wrong to smoke (18%) than to have sex before marriage (10%). Here is the hierarchy of morally acceptable behaviour in today’s Britain:

On some of these issues, attitudes vary little by age. These include abortion, smoking and sex before marriage. Under 35s are notably more tolerant than the over 55s towards homosexuality and illegal drugs. By two-to-one, men regard homosexuality as morally acceptable – but among women the margin widens to almost five-to-one.

These figures raise the question: has Britain’s more tolerant character made our country a better place – or has it contributed to the decline that many people think has occurred? This question is hard to answer as long as the gulf persists between the official statistics that generally tell a story of growing wealth and an improving quality of life, and the clear, subjective belief that Britain has become a meaner, nastier country.

Until and unless we achieve some sort of national consensus on the truth about Britain’s progress, that conflict will remain unresolved. One of the objectives of YouGov’s partnership will be to investigate why we hold the views we do, and what causes so many of us to believe the opposite of what official statistics tell us.

YouGov@Cambridge is a new kind of university think-tank, uniting world experts with YouGov polling in one place. To coincide with the Royal Wedding, the new YouGov@Cambridge website will launch on Thursday 28th April 2011. Here you can find an archive of the latest research material plus editorials from Charles Clarke, David Blunkett, F.W De Klerk, Baroness Perry, Baroness Neuberger, Sue Cameron and Andrew Gamble.