Is the right-wing surge represented by Trump, Brexit, and various right-wing movements across Europe part of a trend?
It’s usual to presume that the young are to the left of their elders, and in some ways this is still true. But recent studies of social attitudes appear to show that those who came of age during the period that Tony Blair was in power (people now aged between 27-40) are more right-wing than those who came of age under Thatcher (now aged between 41-58), who themselves are further to the right than the preceding generation.
A recent overview of data from social attitudes surveys from 1985-2012 reveals that it is not a “uniform right-wingness” (Grasso et al, 2017). “Blair’s babies” are more socially liberal (pro-LGBT+ rights, women’s equality, etc.) but more “consumerist and individualistic”. In short, people became more Thatcherite well after Thatcher left power, with a sharp increase in negative attitudes towards the benefits system, the unemployed, and the welfare state. (The fact that younger people tend to be more socially liberal may explain why the Brexit vote correlates overwhelmingly with age — younger people are just not convinced about placing borders between people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they think a borderless Europe should be more socialistic.)
When a poll was conducted in 1989 asking participants if they preferred a “mostly socialist or mostly capitalist” country, socialism won 47% to 39%. When asked if they would prefer a society that “emphasises the social and collective provision of welfare” or one “where the individual is encouraged to look after himself”, the former won by an even bigger margin of 54% to 40%. Thatcher hadn’t taken people with her. Blairism did the job of cementing her ideology.
When the question on the provision of welfare was asked again in 2009, welfare lost narrowly to individualism, 47% to 49%. The Grasso researchers call the change “political socialisation”; ideas on what is acceptable are shaped by the political context. If you cut welfare and target those using benefits, people are more likely to have negative attitudes to benefit recipients. But the key thing is that right-wing views are not inevitable. People’s ideas can be challenged and changed.
The same study posits the idea that periods of higher political “contestation” results in a less homogenised shift in ideas. They argue that neoliberalism became normalised, accepted as the “rules of the game”, and when there was less contest of these ideas there was a decisive right-ward shift. So when you hear Labour right-wingers argue that we have to appeal to what people think, remember that people weren’t largely sold on attacking the welfare state until Blair carried through what Thatcher had started!