2019 marked a profound shift in attitudes as the UK continues to become more socially liberal. Our research with the Policy Institute at King’s College London shows how attitudes have shifted since 1989. Thirty years ago, 35% said abortion was morally wrong; this number has now almost halved to 18%.
Similarly, our attitudes towards illegal drugs have softened; the number who describe the use of soft drugs such as cannabis as immoral has also halved, from 60% to 29%.
Back in 1989, 40% of the British public believed that homosexual relationships were ‘morally wrong’. Today, that number has fallen dramatically to just 13%, and it will continue to fall as the pre-1945 generation pass away. Our ‘Generations’ research supports the fact that same-sex relationships have become normalised – just two-thirds (66%) of Gen Z, born after 1995, think of themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 88% of Baby Boomers. Young people have much more freedom than previous generations in many aspects of their lives as society becomes more liberal.
While the media often herald Gen Z as the ‘disruptors’ in society, it is important to note that one of the big drivers of this shift in moral attitudes is actually more liberal older groups replacing their previous cohort. While those aged 55 and above are still most likely to oppose homosexual relationships, their disapproval has fallen dramatically from 54% to a much more tolerant 18%. More liberal values appear to cross the gender as well as age gap. Thirty years ago, men were significantly more likely than women to think being gay was ‘morally wrong’, but this gap in opinion has now been virtually eliminated.
At a time when Brexit and its resulting divisions are being discussed at length, it is heartening to think that the British public are becoming more inclusive. Our politics, however, still divide us. Brexit was not just about economic arguments. It has also become symptomatic of battles over culture: how you voted in the EU referendum reflects how supportive you are of same-sex relationships. Of Remain voters, 76% strongly agree that homosexuals should be treated ‘just like other people’, while only 51% of Leave voters agree. We see a similar gap between Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters on one side and supporters of the Conservative Party and Brexit Party on the other.
It comes as no surprise then that, after we released record dissatisfaction ratings for the UK Government this year, almost half of the British public now disagree that politicians are ‘good people’, double the number 30 years ago.
But some things don’t change. While there have been huge shifts in some moral attitudes, some concerns have endured or even increased over time. Our disapproval of capital punishment has increased since 1989, with a third or more now deeming it immoral. Meanwhile, the majority of Britons still consider having sexual relationships with someone who is married to someone else to be immoral (55%, pretty much unchanged). For the minority who regret society becoming more permissive in some areas, that at least must reassure them!