Yesterday's revelation (courtesy of the Social Attitudes Survey) that the British today are more "Thatcherite" (anti-welfare and anti-redistribution) than they were when she departed the scene twenty years ago is not that much of a surprise.
In 1991, 58% thought the government should spend more on benefits. By 2009 that had more than halved to 27%.
Just over half (51%) backed policies to redistribute income from rich to poor in 1989, compared with 36% now. The researchers blamed the "significant change in political rhetoric" throughout the New Labour years, with the abandonment of Clause 4, the party's promise to redistribute wealth, and the emphasis in welfare policies on people going back to work. "This could be due to the reluctance of parties on the left to talk positively about redistribution, which has become synonymous with an 'Old Labour' 'tax and spend' approach," the report says.
Another, related factor might be that high-profile campaigns against benefit cheats have tarred all claimants with the same brush. A right-leaning (or at any rate right-talking) Labour party must have played a role in shifting the centre of political gravity, since there were few people opposing it from the left. (There's a contrast here with the party's authoritarianism which did meet sustained opposition, resulting in a detectable public shift toward the civil liberties agenda.)
The trouble with this assessment is that it implies the public are uncontemplative and sheeplike, meekly absorbing messages beamed at them by politicians. But why should the politicians have stressed such messages at all? New Labour's pitch owed much to marketing - the use of focus groups and the obsessive concern with opinion-poll data - and it was not so much creating as reflecting public opinion in its rhetorical utterances.
Possibly more influential was the press. The Daily Mail has painted a persistent picture of workshy benefit scroungers, typically immigrants, typically living in a four-bedroom council house with the latest in flatscreen TVs, typically claiming incapacity benefit while playing basketball or moonlighting as an exotic dancer. The stereotypes thus created undoubtedly helped to produce an atmosphere of hostility to welfare recipients. Even so, without an undertow of public suspicion the Mail's reports would have had less purchase.
Hostility to "freeloaders" is probably innate. Even vampire bats are intolerant of welfare scroungers. But that doesn't explain why such feelings should have become more widespread over the past twenty or thirty years. I think there are a number of factors at play:
1) Increased belief in meritocracy. Actual social mobility has not increased - on many measures it has been reduced - but there has been a marked decline in both deference and class-consciousness, and a convergence upwards of educational opportunities. Once there was a precipitous divide between the majority who left school at sixteen with few or not qualifications and a small university-educated elite. Now those who leave school "early" are widely assumed to be failures (who can therefore be assumed to bear responsibility for their reduced life-chances).
Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "there is no such thing as society" was widely and wilfully misinterpreted but it did accurately sum up the new individualistic morality: that people make their own luck, and that therefore the situation people found themselves in was to a large extent their own responsibility. If you believe that people's lot in life is largely beyond their control then you may have more sympathy - and be more willing to support - those who have fallen on hard times.
2) Less mutual trust and social cohesiveness. Partly this is a consequence of the aforementioned individualism, the growth of single person households and the hollowing-out of traditional communities. But there's also the changing face of the country. Because we live in a more "diverse" society - itself celebrated by those on the Left who decry the decline in support for welfare spending - people are less likely to think of their fellow-citizens as people like themselves and more likely to associate them with those feckless chavs or socially-housed immigrants they read about in the newspapers. So they ask themselves, "Why should MY taxes go towards supporting THOSE people?" rather than thinking (as they may once have done), "One day that could be me."
Welfare-friendly societies have usually been fairly cohesive and culturally homogenous - like Scandanavia - while by contrast the United States has been (culturally, economically, and geographically) highly diverse. But even the Scandanavian countries are more disparate than they used to be. A notable symptom of this is an increased enthusiasm for welfare cuts.
3) Welfare spending has declined as a percentage of GDP. Throughout most of the 1980s it was in excess of 10%, in times of high unemployment approaching 15%. Today it is half that. (There has been a large increase in overall government spending under Labour, but it has gone on other things.) One might imagine that this lower burden on taxpayers would lead to less resentment of welfare recipients; but the opposite appears to be the case. It may be that, with a smaller "pot" of money to draw from, those who are supported by the state seem particularly fortunate, almost as though they have hit a jackpot.
4) Another finding of the report - increased resentment of bankers and other high earners - while not surprising, suggests that Britain has not become an aspirational society in which wealth is celebrated. Indeed, according to the survey a majority would like to see a levelling of incomes, with the highest paid taking home a mere six times the average wage. This has given some cheer to believers in equality, but I doubt a disinterested belief in fairness lies behind it. Rather, it is a reflection of the same misanthropy (or self-centredness) that begrudges the poor their welfare payments. There's a difference between believing in equality and hating the fact that some people are considerably richer than you are. The banker is resented because, like the welfare recipient, he appears to be living parasitically off the labour or earnings of others. Both, too, are beneficiaries of the state's largesse - in other words, they are both being given "our money". For this reason, tax avoidance is becoming as unpopular with the public as welfare fraud has long been.
The fashionable notion of the "squeezed middle" is crucial here. In conditions of actual or perceived austerity (actual for some; perceived for the majority) those at the top who do not seem to be sharing in the general misery are unlikely to be popular. But there's also less desire to help those at the bottom, if only because those in the middle would like some help themselves. This isn't Thatcherism so much as traditionally British Eeyorishness.