Mass conception

Public opinion since 1938

Full print version, including charts and tables

“Motorists are fined or imprisoned for dangerous driving. Should walkers also be punished if found guilty of careless walking, endangering the safety of others?”

80% believed they should be, according one of the first ever Gallup Polls undertaken by the British Institute of Public Opinion in March 1939.
Described in Parliament in its early days as a ‘dangerous constitutional precedent’ and ‘not to be taken seriously’, its credibility grew after it correctly predicted Attlee’s victory in the 1945 election, when most pundits expected a landslide for Churchill.

The questions in these early opinion polls are in many ways as revealing as the answers. During the War, respondents were asked whether rationing was interfering with their tea-drinking, whether they carried a tin hat, and what they most looked forward to doing on the day the war ended: 19% cited celebrating in the streets, 9% tearing down blackout curtains, and 5% getting drunk. The mundane, ‘did you send washing to the laundry in the last four weeks?’ sits unpretentiously alongside the critical, ‘will the [newly-formed] United Nations be able to prevent war during the next 25 years?’

The destruction of housing during the War and the growth of slums was clearly a cause for national concern: the fact that 63% of people identified it as the single greatest problem facing the country in 1946 shows the strength of feeling.
Today, the economy is our greatest concern, but only 38% identify it as such. Pet ownership has changed remarkably little: 31% of households had a dog and 27% a cat in 1938; today, those figures are almost exactly the same. We are more superstitious than we were, particularly when it comes to touching wood: 41% did it for luck in 1947, compared with 71% today.

The chart shows some more comparisons of how our views have changed over the past 70 years. More people support the reintroduction of the death penalty today than supported its continuation in 1938. Satisfaction with the newly elected Labour Government in October 1945 was at levels that have only since been seen during the immediate aftermath of another Labour victory, in 1997.

Views on life after death and class, meanwhile, are not so different from today.

So was the 1940s ‘man on the street’ happier and more liberal than today? Opinion surveys today may be infinitely more respected than they were, but any attempt to answer such questions from the polling data alone really shouldn’t be taken very seriously.

Liberal and happier? Comparing public opinion in 1938-46 with today shows some unexpected change and continuity.
The chart shows the proportion of people answering ‘yes’ to questions on the subjects given.
The chart shows the proportion of people answering ‘yes’ to questions on the subjects given

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