This week, having come back from holiday, I’ve been thinking about how big (or not) UK society already is, and how we compare to other countries around the world.
My interest was sparked by a chance conversation. At the UK Evaluation Society conference earlier this week, one of the best attended sessions (if I do say so myself) was the one Jane South of Leeds Metropolitan University and I led, all about evaluating the Big Society – apparently everyone is trying to get their head around exactly what Big Society is and what it will mean for them. In my presentation I mentioned the example of the council provided shovels as discussed in previous blog post. Later in the day someone from Germany came up to me and exclaimed that they couldn't believe that people don't automatically clear the snow anyway (and using their personal shovels rather than expecting the council to provide them). I guess maybe it is a case of social norms and what people get used to, but she couldn't see any good reason why you wouldn't accept the shovel and get on with it.
This led me to wonder whether Brits (and me as one example) are just naturally more selfish. The world values survey seemed a good place to explore this theory and it has a number of interesting metrics. For example, we rank 25th out of 51 countries surveyed for agreeing that "it is important to this person to help the people nearby" sounds ‘very much like me’ or ‘like me’ (68% of GB residents say this). We are ahead of the USA, Australia and France by around ten percentage points. Of course, this is a self-defined metric, and there's a myriad of reasons why you probably shouldn't draw too many conclusions from this comparison, but it does suggest some cause for hope.
Equally, it is interesting to look at how people feel about the role of the state. We know from our historic polling data that this is one of the questions which uncovers underlying values (not opinions or attitudes): alongside views of the monarchy and the role of the state views on these issues don't shift dramatically over time. Interestingly, according to the WVS, GB is in the top quintile of countries surveyed believing people should take more responsibility rather than government. We are on a par with France and the USA. At the other end of the spectrum (those thinking government should take more responsibility) are countries such as Iraq, Morocco and Egypt. Of course, the WVS is four years old now but our recent data supports the theory that people in GB would be happy to see a smaller state: nearly two thirds (64%) agree “in recent years government and public services have tried to do too much, and people should take more responsibility for their own”.
Our Global @dvisor omnibus survey also provides interesting insights. For example, for years we have bemoaned how feelings of influence stand at around 40% and haven’t moved despite investment (the trend data is available in this report). The chart, taken from our report “One world, many places”, perhaps confirms this should be a concern –people in GB are definitely less likely to feel they can influence than those in many other countries. Also, while at first glance there appears to be no correlation between satisfaction and feelings of influence, if we only included North America and (most) European countries, the relationship between influence and satisfaction with local government would be much more convincing. Perhaps it could be useful to keep this in mind when putting in a response to the ONS consultation to develop a happiness index?
Closer to home (based on conversations with our offices in the Devolved Administrations this week) anecdotal evidence suggests that while the English broadly support the idea of Big Society (in principle at least), elsewhere it risks being perceived as an 'English' idea which (at best) is perceived to be irrelevant. A quick re-analysis of our data does indeed suggest that the Scottish are less likely than the English to think the Big Society will be good for them personally (net score -19% of Scottish respondents agree compared +12% of English). This is based on data from our Political Monitor Survey so the sampling is designed to be representative of Britain as a whole and not England and Scotland separately which means the finding should be treated as indicative, but does seem to go some way to support the hypothesis. Given the absence of Conservative voters north of the border this is not altogether surprising, but it seems a pity that a policy/philosophy which sets out to bring people together could actually lead to greater divisions.