Britain becoming more liberal


2:00 pm - January 26th 2010

by Don Paskini    


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The 26th British Social Attitudes Survey has just been published, and has some interesting findings.

They show strong support for liberal social values, a decline in support for redistribution and traditional left-wing economic intervention to help the worse off, and overwhelming opposition to spending cuts in health and education.

It has prompted a mixture of gloating about how Britain is shifting to the right and whining about evil librulses not “tolerating” homophobia from our friends in the conservative movement, so let’s have a look at what it really says:

On social attitudes, Britain is becoming more liberal, except for when it comes to drugs:

• Britain is becoming increasingly liberal in its views about homosexuality. 36% think sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always or mostly wrong, down from 62% in 1983.

• Cohabitation is becoming increasingly acceptable. 45% agree that it ‘makes no difference to children whether their parents are married to each other or just living together’, up from 38% in 1998. A quarter (27%) disagree, down from a third (33%) in 1998.

• These changes are partly because younger, more liberal, generations are gradually replacing older, less liberal, ones. But on many issues, like cohabitation, people are also becoming more tolerant as they get older, reflecting their life experiences.

• The last decade has seen a hardening of view about cannabis, most likely reflecting increased concern about its dangers; in 2001, 46% thought it should be illegal, rising to 58% now.

• People in Britain are generally tolerant of non-traditional family arrangements: 14% disapprove of cohabitation, compared with just 3% in Sweden but 34% in Poland.

• Nearly two in five (38%) disapprove of a mother with a young child working full-time; a small minority (3%) disapprove of the same behaviour by a father.

Interesting that the 38% disapproval of mothers with young children working is similar to the percentage who believe that relations between two adults of the same sex are always or mostly wrong – suggesting that socially conservative views are confined to a vocal minority.

On economic policy, fewer than one in ten people support spending cuts. Support for redistribution has fallen since 1997, and there is a consensus in favour of maintaining current levels of public spending.

• Only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education, the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.

• Support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.

• A minority of one in five (21%) think unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship, compared with over half (53%) in 1994.

• In 1986, more than four in five (85%) people in Britain thought it was up to government to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed; just over half (55%) think this now.

• Nevertheless, the proportion willing to say that taxes and spending on health and education should be cut is still less than one in ten (8%).

Interestingly, the shift to the right has occurred mainly among Labour supporters in the wake of the changed stance taken by their party. For example, since 1994, the belief that government should redistribute income has fallen among Labour supporters from two thirds (68%) to half (49%).

Among Conservative supporters, in contrast, attitudes have barely shifted at all (from 26% to 24%). Over the same period, the number of people identifying with Labour has fallen from 45% to 27%, with a sharp rise in the number of people who say that they don’t identify with any party. This has allowed the Conservatives to become the party which most people identify with, on 32%.

An example of how government action can influence public attitudes. The ban on smoking in public paces came into effect in Scotland in 2006; support for a complete ban on smoking in pubs in Scotland more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, from 25% to 53%.

And, worryingly, participation in parliamentary democracy is waning:

• Only just over half (56%) now think that ‘it’s everyone’s duty to vote’, down from two thirds (68%) in 1991.

• Although only a minority of people (18%) go as far as to say that ‘it’s not really worth voting’, this figure has more than doubled since the early 1990s, when it stood at just 8%.

• Only just over two in five (41%) of under 35 year olds feel they have a duty to vote.

Some encouraging findings and some discouraging ones for those of us on the liberal left. But there’s nothing here to give comfort to conservatives who think it is important that parents should be married (supported by 27%), or who want big cuts in public spending on health and education (supported by 8%).

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Economy ,Equality ,Labour party ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


I’d say that the recession has had an impact on moving economic attitudes to being more less generous towards the welfare state. People will be less well disposed towards the poor and unemployed if they’re unsure about their own economic position.

An economy in a boom for example would show the opposite.

Interesting point about the shift in Labour supporters though – I think the party has helped move the political ground towards the Tories by adopting their narratives (see Tom Harris).

I think the party has helped move the political ground towards the Tories by adopting their narratives (see Tom Harris).

Wasn’t this what triangulation was all about? Steal your opponents’ issues and marginalise them from debate. That was pretty much the entire campaigning premise of the New Labour project. Until we got to the new ‘toffs are bad, vote Labour’ approach anyway.

Does anyone know if the party figures are of supporters for that party at the time of the last survey, for supporters now or for supporters both then and now. If basically the same proportion of Conservative supporters have particular views, but the actual number has increased, that says something interesting about the way the party is building up its base support.

Overall, I am not sure I would agree these headline figures are more liberal, allowing for the fact that younger people are much less likely to be socially judgemental. I’d suggest that the drugs and economics figures suggest increasing small-c conservatism (which means Tom Harris is electorally correct, and Sunny wrong, about class warfare?). If we have become a much more liberal country in terms of others’ lifestyles, we are not liberal (in the sense of either Mills or this website) yet in other matters.

4. Luis Enrique

People will be less well disposed towards the poor and unemployed if they’re unsure about their own economic position.

Well you might be right, but there is a certain irrationality to this … if I thought I was more at risk of becoming unemployed myself, I’d want to see more generous unemployment benefits, not less generous.

another way the recession could explain the lack of generosity could be perception that “we can’t afford it” … I think it needs acknowledging that the (I think mistaken) belief that we need to reduce government spending is widely held.

Socially liberally, fiscally conservative. Maybe the future is not so bad after all.

Increasing dissapproval of cannabis is probably less due to shifts in politics or ‘morality’ and more a result of campaigners reclassifying it as a ‘health issue’ because health panics are now endemic.

There’s probably a huge crossover between those against cannabis use and those who want butter banned or who think Facebook gives you cancer.

Shatterface,

Thanks for that. I’d forgotten the health angle, so my main concern is partially allayed (all we need to do now is find a way of dealing with those promoting health scares).

Interesting. You could interpret the social liberal/economic conservative trend as indicative of increasing atomisation (do what thou wilt) and lessening cohesion, especially in the light of the stats for voting and political engagement.

“But there’s nothing here to give comfort to conservatives who think it is important that parents should be married (supported by 27%), or who want big cuts in public spending…”

Now that’s not increasing liberalism, it’s increasing indifference to reality.

“45% agree that it ‘makes no difference to children whether their parents are married to each other or just living together”

That’s not what the stats say :

“Children born into married unions are estimated to be twice as likely as those born into cohabiting unions to spend their entire childhood with both natural parents (70% versus 36%)”

“A study of Census data found that stable long term cohabitation is much rarer than commonly assumed, with just 3 per cent of unmarried couples staying together until their child is 15 years old.”

As for cuts in public spending, the respondents underrate the gravity of the economic situation. Whoever gets in, there will be spending cuts – unless the Government continues to fund its deficit with printed money. Worked well for Mugabe…

Forgot to say. HMG can’t continue to run a massive deficit to pay the bills. Either the pound will collapse (it’s taken a 30% hit in the last 15 months) or there’ll be a gilts strike (people will only fund govt debt at high interest rates). The current situation is not sustainable.

“45% agree that it ‘makes no difference to children whether their parents are married to each other or just living together”

That’s not what the stats say :

“Children born into married unions are estimated to be twice as likely as those born into cohabiting unions to spend their entire childhood with both natural parents (70% versus 36%)”

Ah, but you’ve just assumed that “spend[ing] their entire childhood with both natural parents” “makes [a] difference”. Admittedly, not spending my entire childhood with both natural parents (despite the fact that they were married) did make a difference – but it was undoubtedly a positive one in my case. Parents staying together is only a good thing if they’re not making their children’s (and each other’s) lives miserable by doing so.

So, Laban, I can put you down for ‘doesn’t understand selection effects’ as well.

One of the most significant changes in the overall pattern of marriage and family formation over the last forty years has been the almost total demise of the ‘shotgun wedding’

Off the top of my head, at the end of the 1960′s, at least 70% of unmarried women under 20 who fell pregnant got married before their child was born. Today, children both to women under 20 within 8 months of marriage account for around 1% of the annual number of births in that age group.

The same pattern is evident in other age groups, as well, although the extent to which the number of marriage precipitated by pregnancy has fallen changes from group to group.

What that tells us that a child born into a married union is far more likely to be the result of planned pregnancy in which the parents have thought through and planned for the changes that come with parenthood, while cohabiting couples are far more likely to to have conceived ‘accidentally’ and without any preparation of prior consideration of what it mean to become parents.

The so-called ‘marriage bonus’ exists primarily because married couples are a self-selecting group not because marriage has any kind of magical effect on the stability and longevity of a relationship.

The trend towards cohabitation rather than marriage just removes the less successful couples from the marriage equation, which is why policies that attempt to artificially induce couples to marry aren’t worth pursuing. All they actually do is push up the divorce rate and reduce the apparent scale of the so-called ‘marriage bonus’ because its no more than a statistical artefact that groups like the CSJ don’t control for in research because it doesn’t suit their preconceived views of morality.

There’s more shit talked in research papers on marriage than in just about any other field of social policy research.

I doubt think that the electorate has moved much to the right economically. It is more that the government has moved to the left. The electorate have stayed pretty much where they always were.

e.g. Under the tories, people thought not enough was spent on the welfare state. Labour spent more on it, and now people think too much has been spent.

“38% disapproval of mothers with young children working is similar to the percentage who believe that relations between two adults of the same sex are always or mostly wrong – suggesting that socially conservative views are confined to a vocal minority.”

I’m not a tory troll, honest, but that suggestion is unfounded without further correlational tests which have not been reported in your post. You can’t leap down the throats of other bloggers who don’t really understand statistics and then make silly suggestions using only descriptive data.

Hi mycosis,

That’s an entirely fair point – my original draft qualified that statement significantly – “it would be interesting to do further research to see whether there is an overlap between…”

Equally, I would be astonished if there didn’t turn out to be significant overlap between people holding one view and people holding the other, or if the total number of people who believed (mothers with young children shouldn’t work) or (relations between two adults of the same sex are always or mostly wrong) ended up being greater than 50%.

An example of how government action can influence public attitudes. The ban on smoking in public paces came into effect in Scotland in 2006; support for a complete ban on smoking in pubs in Scotland more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, from 25% to 53%.

How utterly dispiriting.

A clear example of the power of government propaganda- a socially engineered confidence trick kindled by fake charities and delivered by the supine and willing media.

They actually convinced over half our population that the misery they were about to inflict was for their own good- that four legs were, indeed, better than two.

As C.S.Lewis spotted

“a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Gin and tonic anyone?

Don:

I too would be surprised not to find a marked overlap between those two statistics, but I’m inclined to think that its more likely to be a direct function of age than anything else.

#15

Perhaps people just changed their minds?

I was against the smoking ban when it came in. I now think I was wrong, and support it.

Sunny – “I’d say that the recession has had an impact on moving economic attitudes to being more less generous towards the welfare state. People will be less well disposed towards the poor and unemployed if they’re unsure about their own economic position.”

I agree. It seems that if you’re starting to find yourself poorer then you’re not as keen to see the little money you have spread about.

Services that you might actually use yourself on the other hand…

“Nevertheless, the proportion willing to say that taxes and spending on health and education should be cut is still less than one in ten (8%).”

Perhaps they’re unaware of the alternatives. I’m not sure I’d want to see a reduction in health and education spending if a free market alternative was absent. Inefficient schools and hospitals are certainly a better proposition than not having them at all.

#15

Perhaps people just changed their minds?

I was against the smoking ban when it came in. I now think I was wrong, and support it.

Q. From the stats above, more than 25% of the population changed their minds prior to the ban. Why?

A. Because they are sheep.

That is what is so dispiriting. At the risk of invoking Godwins Law…….

I was for the smoking ban when it came in and now I’m against it. Although, as a non smoker I think I’ve probably benefited from it immensely. No more need to have clothes purely for the pub!

Having had the smoking ban, I wonder now, if it was to be revoked how many pubs would make themselves non-smoking purely for commercial reasons. I suspect that quite a few of them would remain non-smoking.

I tend to be with Luis Enrique with regard to a generous welfare state. Those who wished to reduce welfare state spending may have compared the benefits of spending with the disbenefits of increase taxes or borrowing. At the same time, they may have weighed up their own economic position and decided that, whilst they might be out of work temporarily, they could live on smaller benefits. It is harsh (and distrustful of fellow citizens) to extrapolate this to mean a decline in concern for the poor without further evidence.

On the radio this evening, a commentator suggested that increased acceptance of homosexuality reflects change of age demographics. In contradiction, I’ve seen reports that many older people with experience of WWII and national conscription are more tolerant of homosexuality than their younger peers. Today the tolerant people will be aged 70 to 90 years, and will be less numerous than in the 1983 sample that Don uses for comparison. So perhaps in this example, the UK is becoming more tolerant; older gay respecters are being replaced by a bigger group of tolerant younger people?

I suspect that there is more to the change than I suggest. Can anyone point me to an analysis of attitudes by age group over time?

Having had the smoking ban, I wonder now, if it was to be revoked how many pubs would make themselves non-smoking purely for commercial reasons. I suspect that quite a few of them would remain non-smoking.

I agree. And that’s fine. And they were free to be non smoking before the ban.

What is not fine is the state dictating what its citizens are allowed to do and what a landlord may allow on his own property (even if the govrnment can persuade a majority of the population to support their tyranny).

That is err….totalitarian.

PS

I’m not trying to derail the thread unless the title was intended to be ironic.

Agree with Kevin’s last post, though I was always for the smoking ban. Hated having to air my clothes separately after a night of going out becase they smelt so bad.

e.g. Under the tories, people thought not enough was spent on the welfare state. Labour spent more on it, and now people think too much has been spent.

Also a fair point I think. This has certainly happened in the US.

@14 Don Paskini: “Equally, I would be astonished if there didn’t turn out to be significant overlap between people holding one view and people holding the other…”

Survey methodology affects results; the order in which questions are asked is very significant. Without buying and reading all 26 volumes of the report, I don’t know how much to trust the headline results.

The authors highlight the issue of “civic duty” and intention to vote amongst young people. I’d like to know how that question was framed, given that Citizenship is a compulsory subject in UK schools. Perhaps the young people made an informed decision to declare themselves as non-voters?

Pagar @ 22:

And I agree with your agreement. Isn’t this nice! I also think the smoking ban is totalitarian and invasive.

I just wonder if the ban has created an increased desire for non-smoking pubs and thus created an environment where the ban could be lifted and still meet everyone’s desires.

Mixed blessings really, although we seem to be becoming a little more liberal in Britain. We still do have a long way to go, and there will always be those who form their opinions based on the ignorant editorial rantings of tabloid newspapers, instead of forming their own thoughts.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Lauren Ivory

    RT @libcon: Britain becoming more liberal http://tinyurl.com/yceckt9 << interesting post…

  2. Hannah Mudge

    Some interesting stats here RT @libcon Britain becoming more liberal http://bit.ly/5ZxB60

  3. rufflemuffin

    RT @laurenivory RT @libcon: Britain becoming more liberal http://tinyurl.com/yceckt9 << homophobia down from 28% since 1982..

  4. Steph

    38% disapprove of a mother with young child working full-time; 3% disapprove of the same behaviour by a father. http://bit.ly/5ZnYph

  5. marqueue

    "Liberal Conspiracy » Britain becoming more liberal" ( http://bit.ly/9AmQEC )

  6. Liberal Conspiracy

    Britain becoming more liberal http://tinyurl.com/yceckt9

  7. Maff Woodford

    Britain becoming more liberal..except about drugs http://bit.ly/bQxn5X

  8. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » Britain becoming more liberal -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, rufflemuffin, marqueue, Hannah Mudge, Lauren Ivory and others. Lauren Ivory said: RT @libcon: Britain becoming more liberal http://tinyurl.com/yceckt9 << interesting post… [...]

  9. Chris Coltrane

    Interesting breakdown of results from that poll that concluded "Britain is becoming more liberal": http://bit.ly/bA59HP

  10. Jackie Crossley

    RT @libcon Britain becoming more liberal http://bit.ly/5ZxB60 << Mixed blessings, but we still have a long way to go.

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    [...] news: Britain becoming more liberal? Good dissection of the BSA by Don Paskini. Included is this: Support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off [...]

  12. Jackie Crossley

    Liberal Conspiracy » Britain becoming more liberal http://bit.ly/5ZxB60

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