Brits want something radical to fix ‘broken Britain’

Dr Oliver Hartwich
6 September, 2023

You may be forgiven for not knowing who Michael Ashcroft is. In this country, he is hardly a household name.

In Britain, the 77-year-old peer is not just well-known for his multi-billion-dollar fortune or his Conservative Party activities, as the commissioner of some of Britain’s most fascinating opinion polls, Lord Ashcroft has also made a name for himself over the past two decades.

Though Ashcroft is openly (and proudly) on the right of politics, his opinion polls are emphatically neutral. Rather than reporting what he (or his party) would like to hear, they report what his survey participants state.

As Ashcroft is wealthy (he calls himself a member of the “private jet rich”), his surveys are well-funded, comprehensive, and authoritative. On his website, he says he delivers them as a public service.

Ashcroft’s latest report, published in the Mail on Sunday, is a bombshell. It delivers a harsh verdict on the dire state of the United Kingdom – the same United Kingdom that Ashcroft’s Conservatives have now governed for the past 13 years.

That Britain is not doing all that well would hardly come as a surprise. Certainly not to anyone who reads the British press, studies economic data or has visited the country recently. The signs of decline are everywhere.

But Ashcroft’s poll delivers this message with shocking brutality. An overwhelming 72 percent of voters agreed with the statement “Britain is broken – people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly, and we need big changes to the way the country works, whichever party is in government.”

Even 58 percent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 also regard Britain as broken.

But Ashcroft did not just poll voters, he ran focus groups of Tory voters as well. And these focus groups articulated a plethora of things wrong with the UK right now. To quote from Ashcroft’s report:

"Our focus group participants around the country often described the state of the country as 'shambolic' and had a long list of complaints: the cost of living, the NHS, the cost of care for elderly relatives and supporting young people still living at home, mortgage and rent costs and the seeming impossibility of buying a house, strikes, childcare costs, motoring costs, the volume of legal and illegal migration, worsening local crime, growing homelessness and poverty, the state of roads, the cost and unreliability of public transport, declining town centres, and an apparently widening divide between rich and poor and between different parts of the country."

So far, so unsurprising, one might think. And, for New Zealanders, much of this might even sound familiar.

Where Ashcroft’s report delivers novel insights, however, is in Britons' thoughts about the causes of the crisis and their preferred ways of dealing with it. Both show a now widespread disdain for markets and an embrace of government action.

For example, almost two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) believe “companies are putting up prices mostly to boost their own profits, over and above increases in their own costs”. So instead of seeing the responsibility of inflation with the Bank of England, which has flooded markets with money ever since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the public believes inflation is caused by greedy, private companies.

Is it any wonder, then, that Britons want the government to do something about it? A large majority (66 percent) believe that the government could do more to help with the cost of living but is choosing not to. This sentiment is particularly strong among younger respondents, with 79 percent of 18-24-year-olds agreeing the government is not doing enough.

Revealing, also, were respondents’ views on which countries Britain should be more like. The most popular countries were Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. At the bottom of the list were the US and China.

One might interpret this as a liking of countries with a reputation for being “progressive”. But New Zealanders might be bemused at their country being held up as a role model when, in our own opinion polls, about two-thirds say that it is going in the wrong direction too.

The answers to the question about which social forces operate for ‘good’, and which for ‘bad’ were equally instructive. Widely regarded as positive forces were “economic growth”, “small business”, “the green movement” and “regulations on business”. But there was also wide distrust of “government”, “capitalism” and “big business”.

No wonder, then, that there is also support for more economic redistribution. Sixty-three percent of Britons agreed that “it is more important that divisions between rich and poor are reduced even if that means the national economy grows more slowly in the long term”.

Among Britons, there is widespread support for state control of key industries. About 60 percent of respondents believed government should run water, electricity, railways, and gas.

Also, 48 percent of Britons supported higher taxes (to pay for new services or to pay down debt). Tax cuts are only desired by 25 percent of the population.

There is a possibility this attitude is related to the fact that nearly half (47 percent) of all respondents thought spending on public services had decreased over the past 10 years, and three quarters (75 percent) believed they had got worse.

However, over that period, public spending has actually increased significantly in the UK, to levels not seen since World War II.

In real terms, the UK government now spends about 25 percent more than a decade ago – and a startling 80 percent more than at the beginning of the century. It is just that Britons have not noticed any positive effects.

Discrepancies between impressions and political preferences are common. Here is another example: most Britons say that owning a home would make them feel more financially secure, but 65 percent agree that preserving green spaces is more important than building more houses.

With about a year until the next general election, Ashcroft’s poll paints a dramatic picture of Britain. The country has lost trust in the government, big business and free markets after 13 years of Tory rule.

Since David Cameron’s time as leader, the Conservatives have in practice (but not in rhetoric) run on a big government, big spending and high taxes platform. In the perception of voters, however, they are still (mistakenly) regarded as somehow Thatcherite.

Now that the public believes ‘Thatcherite’ solutions have failed, voters are open to trying something radically different.

Some of us can recall the state Britain was in when Thatcher took office after the ‘winter of discontent’.

Ironically, it was, perhaps, not too dissimilar from the state of Britain today.


Read this on Newsroom here.

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