Most Britons felt hopeful about this year, and our economic optimism reached record levels by the summer. However, the overall feel-good factor has remained elusive. In political terms, voters became more fractious than ever. Even as the recession slowly recedes, the public – and indeed Britain’s elites – are more and more concerned that multiple risks confront us. We call them the 5Ds: Danger, Disorientation, Downturn, Devices and Devolution.
Some of the anxiety is global, imported from a world experiencing unprecedented movements of people, slow and patchy recovery from economic depression in the west and rising geo-political tensions. The Middle East conflict and the strained relations between east and west came to the fore in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine this year. Then came Ebola.
In early October James Angus, editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, warned that the “preponderance of difficult, distressing foreign news stories” was turning off listeners.1http://www.standard.co.uk/business/media/in-the-air-radio-4s-today-editor-warns-bad-news-a-turnoff-9766857.html In Ipsos MORI’s monthly Issues Index, concern about foreign affairs reached heights not seen since November 2009, while our Global Trends Survey found that Britain, as elsewhere, views the world as an increasingly dangerous place (74%).
At home, the British became less worried about crime – concern dropped to its lowest level since October 1992 – but the threat from Islamic State (IS) and ‘radicalisation’ of some communities became headline news again. Mayor Boris Johnson even took to warning Londoners to be especially vigilant while travelling on the Tube.2http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/londoners-warned-to-be-vigilant-on-the-tube-by-boris-johnson-warns-as-mps-vote-over-air-strikes-in-iraq-9758269.html
Anxiety about events abroad was matched at home by evidence of the unsettling nature of modern life. While Ray Kurzweil’s view that this century will see 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate is almost certainly over-stated, it does encapsulate anxiety about ‘accelerative change’: 62% of Britons believe that ‘the world is changing too fast’, 53% agree ‘I wish life was more simple’. It may be that, had we asked the same question in 1814 or 1914, we would have had the same answer, but it is indicative of the tension. While only 41% agree globalisation is good for Britain, 81% in China do.
The vast majority of Chinese think that their youth will have a better life than their parents’ generation, four times the proportion here. Our ‘Generation Next’ research this year showed that our 11-16 year olds already have a sense of the challenges facing them; for example, 40% think it will be harder for them to buy their own house than it was for their parents.3https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/publications/1683/Who-Is-Generation-Next.aspx
Our Economic Optimism Index stood at a healthy +19 in January, much healthier than the almost mirror opposite, -22, twelve months earlier. But more people expected unemployment to rise this year than expected it to fall, as well as inflation and mortgage interest rates to rise. In the event, inflation has been stable,4http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10612209 there have been record drops in unemployment,5https://www.gov.uk/government/news/record-drop-in-unemployment-and-more-people-in-private-sector-jobs and the now growing economy is bigger than it has ever been. By May, economic optimism was at a record-breaking +35: more people expecting improvement rather than deterioration.
Our polls, however, show that most people are not feeling the effects of recovery; for 80% it is a statistical recovery rather than a lived experience. We found financial worries extending from paying bills to job security, to the impact of future Bank of England rate rises and further public spending cuts. Certainly, the prognosis for public finances looks bleak and, if not cognisant of the detail, the British are acutely aware that the effects of the downturn will be long-lasting.6https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3111/State-of-the-Nation-2013.aspx Recovery will be unequal too – this year researchers quantified Britain’s ‘underclass’ at half a million people, while in London the number of billionaires has trebled in 10 years.7http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Society/article1447828.ece, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27360032
Amazon and Google are piloting the use of delivery drones, while driverless cars and tube trains will be with us fairly soon. Digital innovation continues at a dizzying pace. 2014 has seen, among other digital phenomenon, the ‘selfie’ (and associated ‘photobombing’), the charitable ‘ice bucket challenge’, the ‘Snappening’ 8http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/the-snappening-thousands-of-teenagers-photos-and-videos-released-through-third-party-app-9790298.html and the campaigning use of social media by IS, with the #NotInMyName counter-narrative.
Digital technology is apparently changing our language; a study of spoken English unsurprisingly found ‘Facebook’ and ‘smartphone’ among key words rising in usage (with ‘marmalade’, ‘pussycat’ and ‘marvellous’ on the wane!).9http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article4186686.ece Some have also gone so far as to suggest that the habit of ‘digital snacking’ on information will inevitably change the way we think, as well as the way we behave.10http://www.susangreenfield.com/science/screen-technologies/ It seems hard to disagree that “the most significant revolution of the twentieth century so far is not political… [but] the information technology revolution”.11http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/23/politics-technology-save-world-david-runciman
But politics still matters. The electrifying Scottish referendum campaign generated the highest ever turnout at a British electoral event. Scotland voted ‘no’, but most commentators agreed that Britain will never be the same again – not just because of ‘devo max’ but also because of the ramifications for England, Wales, London, our regions and cities, and the subsequent collapse of Labour in Scotland.
By five to one Britons agree their country is too centralised12https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3446/State-of-the-Nation.aspx and most are in favour of giving more power to local, municipal or regional government. Globally, only Americans are keener on more decisions about public services being made locally.13http://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/local.html But how much and what power? Our polls show that the public want more local control, but are divided over controlling taxation locally, and want someone to make sure it doesn’t lead to major differences in services, which is seen as ‘unfair’. Of course there are large variations in public services in the UK, but the public doesn’t like to think about it.
Britons certainly don’t want more politicians. Perhaps tellingly in a year in which we found a quarter of the British public ready to replace elected politicians with professional managers,141,011 British adults, 7-9 December 2013 there were significant interjections by non-politicians ranging from Justin Welby, Mark Carney, JK Rowling to Andy Murray (not without criticism). Meanwhile, the ‘anti-politics’ party, UKIP, continue to have a disruptive, populist influence.
As 2014 draws to a close, continued uncertainty – not least over the election outcome – seems inevitable.
Perhaps the key question for the public is not how is such change going to shape us, but rather, how do we shape that change? Britain tends towards evolution and muddling through, but it is perhaps time for a more strategic consideration of what we want, what we need and how to manage change. Whether a fragmented public trust those in authority to make those decisions is, however, very doubtful.
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