The New Liberal Britain

In thirty years British Social Views have rapidly become more liberal. Here’s how it happened.

It’s a good time to be liberal in Britain.


According to a recent survey from Ipsos MORI and King’s College London, Britain has seen unprecedented change in social views, across almost every metric. The survey compares views now to an equivalent measure in 1989, charting the drastic 30-year change in British society. As trust in authority and our politicians has declined, opinions have become markedly more liberal on almost every social issue.


The most significant changes in opinion centre of homosexuality. Where in 1989, four in 10 adults thought homosexual relationships between consenting adults were unacceptable, that number has dropped to 13% today. Only 5% of Britain believes homosexual people should be treated differently; while the number was 24% in 1989. The number who strongly believe in equal treatment for LGBT people has tripled since 1989.


Views on marriage and divorce have also liberalised since 1989, though conservative views were already in a minority 30 years ago. Opposition to unmarried couples living together has nearly halved - from 13% to 7%. Opposition to divorce has done the same, falling from 11% to 6%. Meanwhile the public is far more open to abortion with just 18% thinking it is morally wrong, compared to 36% in 1989.


Beyond traditional ‘moral’ issues, there has been a distinct change in moral opinion on drug use too. Opposition to soft drugs (such as cannabis) has halved since 1989, from 60% to 29%. Opposition to harder drugs remains high, but has also fallen in the past 30 years; from 89% to 67%.


Younger generations are becoming more liberal, and those views are sticking. The baby boomer generation was the first to break from the social views of their parents and grandparents. In 1989, baby-boomers formed the vanguard of social liberalism; rejecting the conservatism of their peers and being open to far more. Now they are much more conservative compared to today’s younger generations, but their views have scarcely changed.


Conservative views remain much more prevalent in older generations. Today, over half of adults born in 1934 or earlier think homosexual relationships are morally wrong, almost five times the national average. 68% oppose cannabis use. The pre-1934 generation has not changed their views with time, instead each new generation has become more progressive than the last. 


While public opinion has shifted in favour of drug use and consensual relationships, the reverse has happened on capital punishment, with 37% finding the death penalty morally wrong, compared to 22% thirty years ago. Whether on drug use, equal marriage or crime, people are less likely to want to give decision making power to the government.


The share of Britain which thinks politicians are not good people has doubled since 1989, from 23%, to 47%. The distrust of politicians has increased across all age demographics; though is most significant in those aged 35-54.


Underpinning our shift to liberalism in modern era is an overall for distrust in authority; a belief that politicians are not good people, or at the very least are not up to the job. It should come as no surprise that as trust in authority has declined, the desire to control the lives of others has also declined.


A combination of political failure and generational change has helped shape a new liberal Britain.


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