Britain’s Jubilee blues

Peter KellnerPresident
May 30, 2012, 9:52 AM UTC

Extensive polling on the royal family shows cheer towards royals but pessimism on whether life has improved since 1952, explains YouGov President Peter Kellner

My, we are a miserable lot.

One might have thought the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee would be an occasion to celebrate how much life in Britain has improved over the past sixty years. We are richer and live longer; our cities are brighter and cleaner; our roads are far safer; our access to higher education, culture, entertainment, good food and foreign holidays has expanded beyond recognition; and laws banning homosexuality and abortion have been scrapped.

Yet that is not how we feel.

In detailed surveys for Prospect Magazine, Sunday Times and the Sun, we explored not just attitudes to the monarchy (which I discuss a little later in this blog) but views on how Britain has changed since the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952.

Overall, just 40% think life in Britain has got better over the past 60 years. 34% think it has got worse, while 14% feel it has not changed much either way. Among those who are over 60, and have therefore lived throughout the Queen’s reign, more people think life has got worse than got better.

When we delve into specific elements of life in Britain, a striking picture emerges:

% saying that over past 60 years, things have got… Net better minus worse
Better Worse About same
Economic wealth 45 32 12 +13
Social mobility 43 31 14 +12
Job opportunities 24 51 14 -27
Happiness      17 49 22 -32
Britain’s standing in world 12 60 18 -48
Law and order   12 65 14 -53
Community spirit  6 75 10 -69

 On just two features do more people say ‘better’ rather than ‘worse’ – and even then, by only modest margins. Not only is Britain thought to have declined on the other five features: the verdict is far more emphatic. We seem to be gripped by nostalgia for the early post-war years, when Britain was Europe’s richest and, militarily, strongest country, when we still had an empire, and when our Prime Minister was Churchill.

These things far outweigh our collective memory of an era when food was rationed, children caught polio, millions still lived in Victorian slums, smog killed thousands, it was hard to buy a decent cup of coffee – and impossible to go to a cinema without emerging with clothes smelling of tobacco. If it were possible to force Britain’s population to live for a week in the same way as we did in 1952, I’d be astonished if more than a tiny number conclude that life was truly better then.

The Queen herself has escaped any blame for presiding over a country that so many of us think has gone to the dogs.

Fully 86% of us think she has done a good job as monarch; and by 73-16% we reject the idea of becoming a republic.

One reason is that the impact of the monarchy on British life is regarded as positive (that is, we fear we have declined as a nation since 1952, but we don’t blame the royals).

This emerges from four statements we tested – two positive, and two negative:

Agree %  Disagree %  Net agree
The Royal family provide a significant amount of revenue for Britain through tourism   81 11 +70
The monarchy is an important part of Britain’s democratic system  61 31 +30
The Royal Family and monarchy promote a class system and inequality within Britain 49 42 +7
The Royal Family is outdated and out of touch  30 61 -31


Apart from the issue of inequality and the class system, on which the public is divided, most people approve of the monarchy’s impact on our national life.

Part of this favourable verdict is, of course, down to the high personal standing of the Queen. How do we feel about who should come after her?

As in previous polls, we find that more people (44%) would prefer the crown to jump a generation and go to Prince William, who will soon be 30, rather than Charles (38%), who is now 63.

However, other results suggest that few people would riot in the streets if Charles does become King in due course. Though as many as 83% think William would be a good king, 61% think the same of Charles.

What is clear is that William and his wife Kate have boosted the reputation of the royal family generally.

We asked people whether they thought each of nine members of the Royal Family was an asset or a liability for the monarchy:

Asset %   Liability %   Neither %   Net asset
The Queen 84 3 7 +81
Prince William 84 3 7 +81
Kate, Duchess of Cambridge 80 4 9 +76
Prince Harry
69 10 15 +59
Princess Anne 55 10 25 +45
Prince Charles 48 22 23 +26
Prince Philip   47 29 18 +18
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
22 35 36 -13
Prince Andrew
17 46 27 -29

Just two of the nine suffer negative ratings. As for the other seven – even Charles and Philip – their positive scores would be the envy of any government minister or party leader.

When the Jubilee celebrations have become a distant memory, and if the future of the monarchy becomes a live issue, I reckon that all the monarchists in that debate will have to do is ask us all: do you really want the role of Britain’s head of state to pass to a politician?