In many respects, the public's attitudes to personal relationships in 2012 look dramatically different to those that existed 30 years ago. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in relation to attitudes towards homosexuality. Then, nearly two in three people though homosexuality was always or mostly wrong, a figure that was to rise over the following decade, at least partly as a result of the debates surrounding the arrival of HIV AIDS. Since then, however, the proportion of people who take this view has halved, and the most prevalent opinion is now that homosexuality is not wrong at all. In this context it is possible to imagine a Conservative Prime Minister advocating gay marriage, something that would have been unimaginable in the 1980s. These shifts towards a more tolerant view about how people live their personal lives are not confined to attitudes to homosexuality, applying as well to Britain's views about sex and parenthood outside marriage, and abortion.
These huge shifts largely reflect the impact of generational differences in people's views (the exception being attitudes to abortion). This is clearest in relation to attitudes to premarital sex and homosexuality; in both cases each generation, defined by its decade of birth, is successively more liberal than the one before it, a relationship which has not changed as these generations age. Consequently, as older generations die out and are replaced by more liberal subsequent generations, society's view as a whole becomes more liberal. There are likely to be many reasons for these generational differences; religious faith will undoubtedly play a part, as may increasing access to higher education, but so too does the context within which different generations come of age and form their own opinions about how to lead their lives, being influenced as they do so by an array of factors ranging from the policy context, social trends, popular culture and current events. The fact that those belonging to different religious groups have themselves tended to become more liberal over time certainly suggests that their declining numbers cannot alone account for an increasingly liberal Britain.
Of course, these trends do not mean that differences of opinion have been eliminated. The most common view about parenthood and marriage, held by four in ten, is that the two should ideally coincide. And, despite increasingly liberal views about homosexuality, a substantial minority, almost three in ten, continue to see it as always or mostly wrong. These views are not randomly distributed throughout the population either. In addition to marked generational gaps, differences still remain (and in some cases are growing) between the views of different religious groups. In particular, the distinctive views of non-Christians (who on many topics have among the least liberal views) points towards possible future tensions.
There are also clear differences by party support, with Conservative supporters remaining markedly more 'traditional' than anyone else in their views about parenthood and marriage, and Liberal Democrat supporters standing out as having the most liberal views about homosexuality and abortion. In most cases there is little difference between the views of Labour and Conservative supporters, and it is also notable that, with the exception of abortion, the (growing) proportion of people who do not support any party tend to have views that put them at the more liberal end of the spectrum. The differences between Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters are not surprising, but demonstrate well some of the tensions that underpin the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, as well as signposting the difficulties that the Conservative Party will need to face if it continues its push towards social liberalism.
Predicting the future direction of society's attitudes is a risky business. The impact of HIV AIDS on attitudes towards homosexuality provides a very good example of the way in which unforeseen events can have a dramatic impact on how people think about a particular issue. But, with these appropriate caveats in place, the patterns we have described here do point fairly clearly towards the liberalisation we have already seen continuing over the next few decades, at least when it comes to subjects like homosexuality, parenthood and marriage. But the pace of this change will begin to slow down, reflecting the fact that the gaps between the views of more recent generations is narrower than the gulfs that existed between some of their predecessors.
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- BBC news, 17th February 2001, available at: news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1175753.stm.
- It is possible that the expansion of higher education will affect the relationship between degree-level education and social values, especially if the main mechanism by which education affects attitudes is socialisation (rather than cognitive development). So as a wider cross-section of young people attend university, the distinctive nature of their values is diluted.
- Bases for Table 1.4 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:
- In summary, there has been a considerable rise since 1983 in the proportion who identify with no political party whatsoever, up from eight per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now. The proportion of Conservative identifiers has shrunk (from 39 to 27 per cent) and the proportion of Labour identifiers has remained broadly constant (33 and 36 per cent in 1983 and 2012 respectively). In 1983, 15 per cent of people identified with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, compared with six per cent in 2012 identifying with the Liberal Democrats. Further details can be found in the Politics chapter.
- Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
- Speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference, 1987, 9th October, available at: www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106941.
- See, for example, the ILGA Europe review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and intersex people in Europe, available at: www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/for_media/media_releases/not_la_vie_en_rose_the_most_comprehensive_overview_of_the_lgbti_people_rights_and_lives_in_europe_2013.
- Bases for Table 1.8 are as follows:
- The Guardian Datablog, 7th October 2012, available at: www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/may/24/abortion-statistics-england-wales.
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