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How Britain became socially liberal in just 30 years

Moral attitudes have changed hugely since 1989

two men getting married

New analysis by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, based on Ipsos MORI polling that updates a 1989 survey, reveals how the British public have become far more tolerant of a range of moral issues and activities in the last 30 years. Results for 2019 are based on two surveys of 1,000+ adults in Great Britain, one conducted face-to-face in respondents’ homes, one online (technical note below).

Given the 30-year gap between the studies, a number of the changes in overall attitudes are explained by Baby Boomers, who grew up in more permissive times, moving into older age, replacing a generation born before World War II, who had more conservative views.

Download the full report for charts and detailed analysis >

Relationships and family

Homosexuality

  • In 1989, 40% of Brits thought homosexual relationships between consenting adults were morally wrong, now down to just 13%.
  • 30 years ago, 52% agreed “homosexuals should be treated just like other people”, now up to 82% today, based on an online survey of adults aged 16-75. 23% strongly agreed with this statement back then, compared with 64% now.
  • When looked at by 2019 Westminster voting intention and EU referendum vote, there are big differences in the proportion who strongly agree that homosexuals should be treated just like other people: Brexit Party, 46%; Leave supporters, 51%; Conservative, 51%; Labour, 69%; Lib Dem, 75%; Remain supporters, 76%.

Having sexual relationships with someone who is married to someone else

  • Attitudes towards infidelity are virtually unchanged, with 52% viewing it as immoral 30 years ago, compared with 55% today.
  • Men have become slightly less accepting of unfaithfulness – 55% today say it is morally wrong, up from 49%. This is now in line with women’s views (54%).

Having a child with a person you are not married to

  • Nearly a quarter of the population (24%) thought this was immoral in 1989, compared with 13% today.
  • The biggest decline is among people aged 55 and above: levels of moral disapproval among this group have more than halved, from 40% to 18%.

Drug use

  • In 1989, 60% said the use of soft drugs such as cannabis was morally wrong, now down to 29% in 2019.
  • Even the use of hard drugs such as heroin is now less likely to be seen as immoral: 89% said it was immoral in 1989, down to 67% today.

Sex and violence in popular culture

Pornography

  • In 1989, 38% thought soft porn magazines in shops and newsagents were morally wrong, down to 22% today. Women in particular are now much more tolerant of such magazines, with the proportion who see them as immoral almost halving, from 46% to 25%.
  • But 47% today say pornography in the cinema is morally wrong, virtually unchanged from the 49% who held this view 1989.

Full frontal male nudity on TV

  • Today, 23% of the population think full frontal male nudity on TV is morally wrong, down from 39% 30 years ago.
  • The biggest decline is among people aged 55 and above, 60% of whom said this was morally wrong in 1989, now more than halved to 29%.

Strip shows

  • Moral disapproval of strip shows has fallen from 25% in 1989 to 20% in 2019, largely driven by those aged 55+ being less concerned now than in 1989 (now 24% of 55+s think strip shows are immoral compared with 36% in 1989)

Topless page 3 girls

  • 21% now say topless page 3 girls are morally wrong, unchanged from 30 years ago, with 26% of women thinking it is immoral compared with 15% of men today.

Violence on TV

  • In 1989, 53% thought scenes of explicit violence on TV were morally wrong, compared with 32% today. Those aged 55+ are over twice as likely to think TV violence is morally wrong than those aged 15-45 (45% vs 19%)

Life and death

  • Capital punishment is today seen as morally wrong by 37% of the public, up from 22% in 1989. This is the only issue in the survey that saw a significant increase in moral disapproval.
  • Euthanasia is now seen as immoral by 17% of the population, down from 22% 30 years ago.
  • Today, 18% think abortion is immoral, almost half the proportion (35%) who held this view in 1989.

Scientific experiments

  • 52% said scientific experiments on human embryos were morally wrong in 1989, down to 39% today.
  • People today are also slightly more tolerant of animal experiments, with 44% now viewing them as immoral, down from 50%.

Are politicians good people?

  • The public’s moral judgement of politicians is far less favourable now compared with 30 years ago. 36% agreed that “in general, politicians are good people” in 1989, but this has now more than halved, to 15%, in an online survey of 16 to 75-year-olds.
  • Conservative voters have seen the biggest changes in opinion: 45% agreed with this statement 30 years ago, compared with 30% today. The proportion who disagree with it has more than doubled, rising from 15% to 33%.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“These findings show Britain has become decisively more liberal on a range of moral issues in the last 30 years. That we’ve gone from being a country in which four in ten thought gay relationships were not just wrong but immoral, and in which only half thought gay people should be treated just like anyone else, to the society we see today, all in the space of a few decades, shows just how much attitudes can change.

“On all sorts of issues, from full frontal male nudity and violence on TV, to drug use and abortion, we are much more relaxed as a nation.

“One of the causes of this shift is that Baby Boomers – who grew up in more permissive times – have moved into older age, replacing a generation born before World War II, who had more conservative views.

“The result is that what were once pressing moral concerns have become simple facts of life for much of the public. However, some moral concerns, such as having affairs, have endured across the decades, or have even increased, such as capital punishment.”

Download the full report for charts and detailed analysis >