Britain is becoming a more liberal and open society. But we are ever more divided too | Kenan Malik

Social attitudes are changing. However, so is the nature of the issues that provoke us

‘The ‘woke’ outlook on national identity, national sentiment and immigration now tends to be the more popular”; and “whereas it might once have represented a widespread view, now the ‘anti-woke’ position on ‘culture war’ issues often appear to be more of a minority one.”

It’s a striking conclusion from Sir John Curtice and Victoria Ratti in the latest edition of the British Social Attitudes survey, published last week. The gold-standard annual survey of public opinion has tracked public views on a host of issues for almost 40 years and is invaluable in tracking changes in attitudes over time. The new edition, on “Public Attitudes in an Age of Crisis”, explores attitudes to issues ranging from taxation to constitutional reform. The most fascinating insights came, however, in the chapter on the culture wars.

The immediate takeaway from the survey is that Britain is a nation that has become more liberal, more supportive of immigration and minorities and more inclusive in its understanding of national identity.

The proportion of Britons who view immigration as having a positive economic impact has steadily increased from around one-fifth in 2011 to a half 10 years later, while the proportion thinking that immigration was bad for the economy has halved to 20% over the same time. Similarly, those who think that immigration enriches the nation’s cultural life has increased from 26% to 48%, while those believing that it undermined it has again halved to 21%.

Far more people think that equality has not gone far enough for women and for ethnic minorities (and, to a lesser extent, for lesbian and gay people) than think that it has gone too far. And far more people support a greater push for equal rights for minorities than they did three decades ago.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Britain is more liberal, the survey suggests, but also more polarised. Brexit remains one of the key faultlines in British society. Around two-thirds of remain supporters regard the economic and cultural consequences of migration in a positive light, compared with only around a quarter of those who back leave. Almost 40% of leavers (as compared with 9% of remainers) think that immigration has undermined British culture; and while two-thirds of remainers think that immigration has enriched Britain’s cultural life, just one-fifth of leavers do. Fifty-nine per cent of leavers insist that “British ancestry is important for being truly British”, as compared with 23% of remainers. And while two-thirds of leavers think of themselves as “very strongly British”, fewer than half that figure of remainers do.

There is a clear divide on these issues, not just along the leave-remain faultline but also in terms of other boundaries, such as education and age. However, does it make sense to view these issues in culture war terms? To see, for example, a more liberal attitude to immigration or a greater willingness to explore the darker recesses of British history as signalling the advance of “wokeness”? To answer that, we first have to answer why it is that the fiercest public debates today seem to be around questions of culture, identity and history.

The culture wars are primarily the product of the demise of old-style class politics and the disenchantment with possibilities of social change. One of the striking features of the past half century has been the liberalisation of social attitudes towards minorities and women, and the fact that it has coincided with an assault on working-class organisations and increasingly restrictive laws on trade union activities.

Society has been more willing to tolerate economic inequality, even as it has sought to reduce racial and gender discrimination. In many ways, last week’s “mini-budget” symbolised this trend: a budget presented by Britain’s first black chancellor who sits in a cabinet hailed for its ethnic diversity but the consequence of which will be to greatly increase economic inequality.

In any struggle for equality, both sides of the equation are important; both the expansion of political rights for minority groups and women, on the one hand, and the demands for decent pay, good housing, sound social infrastructure, on the other. Not least because disproportionate numbers of black and minority populations are working class and poor. In separating the two strands, not only has it become more difficult to advance either kind of equality, but in the eyes of many of us, the two have seemingly been set one against the other.

The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class in Britain has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. It has also transformed the language through which we understand social problems, from one that is rooted in class and politics to one that emphasises identity and culture.

People find their place in the world today less through categories such as “liberal” or “conservative” or “socialist” than ones such as “English” or “European” or “Muslim” or “white”.

Even when people talk of being liberal or conservative, or a Brexiter or remainer, they are often talking as much of cultural identities as of political viewpoints.

Accompanying these changes has been a shift from movements for material change to demands for symbolic gestures and representational fairness. Too often today, for instance, anti-racist campaigning has become reduced to little more than a kind of public performance or the policing of boundaries. At the same time, conservatives have become adept at exploiting the symbolic value of issues such as immigration or national identity to win support for regressive policies.

The end point of all this is the culture wars, in which society becomes polarised less along lines of politics and class than of culture, history and identity, and where symbolism has come to take the place of real change. One’s attitude to issues such as immigration or national identity is often shaped by their symbolic meaning for one’s place on the culture wars map.

Britain, contrary to what many suggest, is a more liberal, open society than it was 30 years ago; indeed, more than it was even 10 years ago. But the growth of liberal social attitudes is often trapped in the social fractures of the culture wars and in the separation of different struggles against inequality. The shift in attitudes revealed in the BSA survey is both welcome and a warning.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at


Kenan Malik

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A divided Britain is not new. So why do today’s schisms seem intractable? | Kenan Malik
Once, divisions were more clearly embedded in politics. Now they can appear arbitrary

Kenan Malik

13, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Observer view: malign ideas driving child poverty haunt Brexit debate | Observer editorial
Theresa May says parliament is preventing her from fixing the country’s social ills, but the mess was caused by Tory austerity

Observer editorial

30, Mar, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’ | Will Hutton
Life expectancy figures are going into reverse. But abandoning Brexit could save us

Will Hutton

19, Aug, 2018 @4:59 AM

Article image
This isn’t a tough new food policy for post-Brexit UK. It’s thin gruel and easy to set to one side | Jay Rayner
Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy will do little for the millions who go hungry

Jay Rayner

01, Aug, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
The Tories now treat the nation as they have long treated the poor | Nick Cohen
From universal credit to Brexit, the party is hellbent on diminishing us all

Nick Cohen

19, Jan, 2019 @6:30 PM

Article image
The Observer view on the baleful distraction of Brexit | Observer editorial
Every shred of political energy is being tied up in Brexit, with detrimental effects on a nation facing other urgent social and economic challenges

Observer editorial

15, Dec, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
Our discourse on race is becoming ever more polarised | Farai Chideya
As mainstream media withdrew from deep reporting, others stepped in

Farai Chideya

09, Jul, 2016 @11:03 PM

Article image
The Observer view on the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration policy | Observer editorial
Attitudes have changed hugely since Enoch Powell’s day, so why is Theresa May still so willing to scapegoat immigrants?

Observer editorial

15, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
The left/right divide still exists. But it's struggling to escape the lure of identity politics | Kenan Malik
Social and economic changes have pushed people into ‘reluctant individualism’

Kenan Malik

28, Feb, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Who voted for the intolerance poisoning the national conversation? | Seema Malhotra
The hateful tone of post-Brexit rhetoric is damaging our society and our image abroad. The clean-up must start at the top…

Seema Malhotra

23, Oct, 2016 @3:30 AM