Britain is much more liberal-minded than it was 40 years ago, study finds

From views on gay sex to women’s role in the home, British social attitudes survey reveals a ‘near revolution’

From attitudes to gay sex and single parenting to views on abortion and the role of women in the home, Britain has evolved into a dramatically more liberal-minded country over the past four decades, a leading study has found.

The transformation in public opinion on many social and moral issues – described by one of the study’s researchers as “a near revolution” – is captured in the latest British social attitudes (BSA) survey, which is marking its 40th year of mapping Britain’s cultural and political landscape.

Examples of the ascendancy of liberal views include attitudes towards same-sex relationships – 50% of respondents said they were “always wrong” in 1983, compared with 9% in 2022 – and a woman’s right to choose an abortion, supported by 76% now, against 37% when the question was first asked 40 years ago.

There have been similarly sweeping changes in public attitudes towards sex before marriage, having children outside wedlock, and traditional gender roles in the workplace and the home, to the extent that Britain “now looks and feels like a different country from 40 years ago”, according to the BSA.

The study notes, however, that attitudes towards transgender people – recorded only since 2016 – appear more volatile, with a recent sharp decline in public support. The proportion of the British public describing themselves as “not prejudiced” towards transgender people fell from 82% to 64% between 2021 and 2022, when the latest survey took place.

Similarly, while 58% of the British public agreed in 2016 that transgender people should be able to have the sex on their birth certificate changed if they wanted, that figure had dropped to 30% by 2022, suggesting “an overall gradual erosion in support towards transgender rights” since 2018.

This change may reflect the “intense political debate and media discussion” of the topic and increasing public “ambivalence or uncertainty”, the study suggests. Women were more likely to express liberal views on transgender people – 71% said they were “not prejudiced” against 57% of men. Among people aged 18 to 34, the figure was 69%, compared with 51% among the over-70s.

Although Tory governments have ruled for 27 of the last 40 years, some with explicitly socially conservative policies, this seems to have had limited effect on the evolution of liberal public attitudes, which the study suggests have been driven by profound social changes such as more people going to university, more women going out to work and the decline in marriage and organised religion.

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“The vast social changes that Britain has witnessed over the last 40 years have been accompanied by a near-revolution in attitudes towards many social and moral issues, including sexuality and the role of women,” said the political scientist Sir John Curtice, who co-authored the study.

One way of appreciating the scale of the transformation might be to imagine if Doctor Who’s time machine were to transport a typical British citizen from 1983 to the present, the BSA says, and to imagine their reaction to what they would be likely to conclude was a “decidedly unfamiliar” environment.

From the celebration of same-sex relationships and references to “partners” rather than “husbands” or “wives” to the general acceptance that family and sexual matters should be a question of personal choice, not social conformity, “our citizen would find her 1980s moral and cultural compass of limited value – and perhaps wonder whether it will ever be of much use again”, it says.

The BSA researchers point out wryly that while attitudes towards whether the man or the woman in a heterosexual couple should carry out household chores have changed hugely – 75% regarded ironing as the women’s job 40 years ago, compared with 16% now – the reality lags far behind.

When the study asked who actually does the majority of unpaid housework, it found that women were still largely responsible. “It is a reminder that attitudes and behaviour do not always go hand in hand,” the study says.

Age has become the biggest demographic divide in British politics since the pandemic, the study says, with younger people for the first time in 40 years becoming markedly more leftwing than older people, a development it says may be down to their sense of injustice around inequality and access to housing.

Young people “may also have noticed the long-term increase in spending on health and social care that primarily benefits older people,” the study says. “While they themselves in some cases are having to repay the cost of their university education, a requirement that means that they are already paying a higher rate of income ‘tax’.”

While social attitudes have moved seemingly inexorably towards a more liberal perspective, the BSA notes that attitudes towards the role and size of the state have fluctuated, with support for increased tax and spending, for example, swinging from 32% in 1983 to 63% in 1998 before falling to 31% in 2010.

It is now 55%. “So far as the public are concerned at least, the era of smaller government that Margaret Thatcher aimed to promulgate – and which Liz Truss briefly tried to restore in the autumn of 2022 with her ill-fated ‘dash for growth’ – now seems a world away,” the study concludes.

Contributor

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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