Britons under the microscope

Britons under the microscope

‘This is the start of a very unusual social survey,’ says the introduction to the Observer Magazine cover story of 16 September 1984 (‘Britons observed’). ‘What do we think about the family, about sex, religion and television – as contrasted with how we actually behave?’

Peter Kellner says it’s ‘the most extensive opinion poll ever conducted for a newspaper’, interviewing 1,068 people. The broader context was to get a handle on the country after a second landslide general election win for Margaret Thatcher the previous year.

The survey often found a gap between perception and reality. ‘We found out that four out of five people think the nuclear family is still the norm,’ but according to the Government Household Survey ‘only 5% of homes contain families at the stage where Dad is working, Mum is not and there are school-age kids.’

The ‘middle-class habits’ of private education and medical care and – especially – home ownership were now increasingly enjoyed by better-off working-class people. ‘That we are an increasingly home-oriented society is beyond doubt; and in this, the selling of council houses was the cleverest thing the Conservatives ever did,’ writes Katharine Whitehorn, who argues that, ironically, it was the Labour party who put ‘the biggest electoral lollipop in history’ into the hands of the Tories by pushing to drive up standards in public housing.

‘Ask what we’d do with more time: three-quarters would spend it with our partners. Ask about money: most would spend a windfall on their homes. Ask where the money comes from: a lot of it comes from women.’

Looking back, the problem for the Labour party was exemplified by ‘Wendy, housewife, 25: “I voted Conservative for the reason that they were keeping the mortgage rate down because you always think about yourself first.”’