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Britain's Nostalgic Pessimism

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Why is it that millions of Britons say that life for the average person has improved, but that the country has got worse overall? Peter Kellner explains

In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth succeeded her father, Britain was broke. Meat, butter and sweets were still rationed. Abortion and homosexuality were illegal. Polio maimed thousands of children a year. Smog killed thousands of adults. Innocent people were sentenced to death. Plays were censored. Just 17 MPs were women.

I can just remember the death of George VI: the day off infant school and the thick black lines marking the columns of the newspapers. I recall the 1950s as a grim, restrictive time. During the Queen's 60 years on the throne, Britain has changed unquestionably for the better.

That's my opinion, anyway. However, according to YouGov's latest poll for the Sunday Times, I am in a minority. Just 30% think Britain has changed for the better. Rather more, 43%, think Britain has changed for the worse.

When I first saw these figures, I was startled.  Adding in the 27% who don't take sides, how can seven out of ten people fail to regard today's Britain as an immensely better country? To my surprise, the people most likely to say Britain has changed for the worse are those, like me, who have lived throughout the Queen’s reign - the over sixties. The people who are most likely to think Britain has changed for the better are the under 25s.

Then I reflected that we have a tendency to think the present is worse than the past, and the future will be worse than the present. One of Labour's problems towards the end of its 13 years in office was that most people thought that crime had increased, public services had deteriorated and pensioners were poorer. By any objective test, the opposite was true, but most voters didn't believe it.

Consumer confidence data tell the same story. When the economy is flat on its back, as now, a big majority expect their household finances to deteriorate. When the economy is booming, the majority is smaller - but it's rare for optimists to outnumber pessimists, even when living standards are rising steadily.

So maybe the sixty-year view is simply a long-term extension of the tendency of Britons to nostalgic pessimism: to love the past and fear the future. But was there another explanation? Could our results have something to do with the way we posed the question? We didn't ask about living standards, or the economy, the quality of life. We asked about the country - 'has Britain changed for the better or worse' - not the everyday experiences of its people.

To test this point, we asked a differently-worded question in our next poll: over the past 60 years, has 'the quality of life for the average person in Britain' changed for the better or worse? This time, the responses were very different: 65% said better, 19% said worse, and the rest said neither or don't know.

Phew. Most of my fellow Britons reject the perverse view that life has got worse (though I remain slightly perplexed that as many as 35% fail to acknowledge the, to me, obvious truth that our quality of life has improved vastly).

However, the contrast between the two sets of results simply raises another conundrum. What is it that causes millions of Britons to say both that life has improved but the country has got worse? The contrast is strongest among the over 60s – that is among the people who, like me, can recall Britain and British life in the early years of the Queen’s reign.

Having delved into more poll results on more issues than a sane adult should ever be required to analyse, I suspect the answer goes like this. We know that we are better off, healthier, better educated and better informed than our grandparents. We travel further, live longer and enjoy more freedom.

But we respect our politicians less. We regard our neighbourhoods as less safe and less friendly. We regret that Britain has been relegated from the premier division of world powers. Many of us think that globalisation, immigration and Europe have changed Britain for the worse. Inequality has grown. We are less secure.

If that, or something like it, explains the mood of Britain in the Queen’s diamond jubilee year, then the challenge facing our political system is not simply to address the issues that affect our daily lives. It is something larger, almost existential: to make us feel good again about the country that we share.

See the survey details and full results for our most recent Sunday Times poll

See the survey details and full results for the 'quality of life for the average person' poll

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