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We're becoming more tolerant
Changing attitudes bode well for the future
Last week saw the publication of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey. This is an annual survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and always makes for fascinating reading. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first report, back in 1983, and NatCen have taken the opportunity to highlight how social attitudes in Britain have changed over the last four decades.
1983 was an important year in my life: it was the year in which, possibly more than any other, my own social attitudes underwent a major transformation: In September 1982, I left the sleepy provincial town in Devon where I did most of my growing up and moved to London. I was eighteen, and convinced I knew pretty much everything there was to know about the world.
Thankfully, I fell in with a bunch of older, more worldly, fellow students who not only taught me how to drink properly, but over the course of a single year transformed my world view from that of a naive country boy, certain that if only the government would keep its nose out of people’s lives, everyone would be free to make the most of their abilities, into a (perhaps overly) committed socialist, now convinced that it was an under-regulated free-market economy, rather than state intervention, that placed limits on the numbers of people who could make a decent living for themselves.
At the time, Britain, and the world, were going through huge economic changes. The post-war settlement was history. Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Ronald Reagan in the United States, we presiding over a major reset of the role of government in the economy. In Britain the result was industrial strife and levels of unemployment not seen since the 1930s.
But there was also a strong sense that beyond the economy, many things were changing for the better, especially in respect of attitudes towards minorities. Among my cohort of politically-conscious young people, there was no longer any question that women, gay people, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities should be afforded the same rights as everyone else. This was a notion I had barely considered previously, mainly because I’d had no exposure to the effect of prejudice and discrimnation on people’s lives.
This new world view of mine was hardly radical. It had been precisely articulated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as far back as 1948. The UN Declaration didn’t have an immediate impact for two reasons: First, it wasn’t until 1976 that most of its provisions gained legal force with the creation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has since been ratified by 173 nations. Second: in the period from 1945 to the mid-1970s, for many people in richer countries, things were improving: the boomer generation enjoyed educational and economic opportunities their parents’ generation could only have dreamed of. When things are going well, fewer people focus on the things that are still wrong about society.
Declarations and treaties only signal an intent on the part of the leaders who sign them. And even with the backing of international law, enforcement of such rights is almost impossible, because legislation alone doesn’t change people’s attitudes.
Nonetheless, these landmark treaties did help trigger debate, and in many countries attitudes have changed sharply, especially in the four decades since the publication of the first British Social Attitudes Survey.
Encouragingly , this latest survey shows that:
‘substantial liberalisation in moral attitudes has taken place over the past four decades, focusing on family formation, sexual relationships, and abortion’.
‘81% think it is all right for a couple to live together without being married, up from 64% in 1994.’
‘67% think a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is never wrong, compared with 17% in 1983.’
These are quite remarkable figures: they show how much attitudes can change in a relatively short period of time. And from the point of view of this project, which is about accelerating the pace of social (and economic) change, it is clear evidence that very few people have unalterably-fixed mindsets.
You might argue that there is no tangible economic risk to an individual in changing their attitude towards family and same sex relationships, but other findings from the survey suggest that attitudes also change in respect of fundamental economic questions:
‘The perception that benefits recipients are undeserving has reduced substantially since 2010.’
‘19% agree that most people who get social security don’t really deserve any help, down from a high of 40% in 2005. Responses in 2019-22 are the lowest since the question was first asked in 1987.’
‘22% think that unemployment claimants are ‘fiddling in one way or another’, down from a high of 41% in 2004.’
This reduction in prejudiced attitudes towards benefit claimants is all the more remarkable when you consider how Conservative-led ‘culture wars’ have dominated politics in Britain over the last few years. Many people, it seems, are willing to block out the media noise and instead listen to their consciences: to make up their own minds.
Nonetheless, over the last forty years attitudes on social issues have been far more easily changed than on economic ones. Explicit discrimination against minorities has become a moral issue for many people, in a way that the arbitrary discrimination against (potentially) everyone, that is an essential part of the economic system, has not.
A vital part of this project is to sell one simple idea: that how we arrange the economy is very much a moral issue. We urgently need to insert ethics into economics if we are to make progress towards a more inclusive, just and sustainable social order.
There’s tons of really useful information on the beautifully-presented NatCen website, which includes data and summaries from each of the previous thirty-nine surveys. I urge you to pay it a visit.
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