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07 June 2021

No-platforming, left-wing bias and talking about controversial issues: free speech and political correctness in the UK's culture wars

Most Britons would not feel reluctant to share their views on key culture war issues


Culture wars in the UK: political correctness and free speech

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Half of the public are against “no-platforming” controversial speakers at universities, while one in six support it, rising to a quarter of Labour supporters and young people, according to a new study of free speech and political correctness in the context of the UK’s culture wars.

The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, also finds that suggestions of left-wing bias among university professors don’t seem to have registered with the public, and that the majority of Britons would not feel reluctant to share their views on key culture war issues with colleagues or classmates – even ones that are potentially controversial, such as Black Lives Matter or transgender rights.

The study is the third in a series of reports that provides an in-depth assessment of the UK’s culture wars.

Free speech

Half of the UK public (50%) disagree that “no-platforming” is the right response to speakers with controversial views, compared with one in six (17%) who are in favour of such a response and one in four (24%) who don’t take a position.

Labour supporters (27%) are nearly three times as likely as their Conservative counterparts (10%) to agree that no-platforming can be appropriate.

25% of 16- to 24-year-olds also support the practice – slightly higher than the proportions of those aged 25 to 34 (20%) and those aged 35 to 54 (17%) who feel the same.

There are bigger variations in the extent to which people actively disagree with no-platforming. For example, 32% of 16- to 24-year-olds oppose the idea, compared with 60% of those aged 55 and above.

Overall, 53% of the public say universities should expose students to all types of viewpoints, even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups – around twice the 28% who feel that universities should ban offensive speech that is biased against certain groups.

Left-wing bias at universities?

There is little sign that most of the public believe there is a left-wing bias among university professors.

Among people who didn’t go to university, 42% think professors most often have a range of different political views – compared with 18% who think they tend to be left-wing, 11% who think they are moderate and 6% who think they’re right-wing.

It is a similar story among those who did attend university, with the most common view being that professors at their institution had a mix of political opinions (36%) – although graduates are more likely than non-graduates to think professors are mostly left-wing (27% vs 18%).

But there is a stronger perception that university students tend to be left-wing: for example, people who went to university themselves are more likely to say their fellow students (41%), rather than their professors (27%), had left-wing views.

Political correctness

In general, Britons lean towards thinking people are too easily offended (55%) rather than believing there’s a need to talk more sensitively to those from different backgrounds (42%).

They are clearer still that political correctness has gone too far: 62% agree with this view (including 29% who strongly agree) – three times the 19% who disagree.

There are, however, a very wide range of views: 76% of those aged 55+ agree, compared with 38% of those aged 16 to 24; and Conservative supporters (85%) are nearly twice as likely as Labour supporters (46%) to agree.

Despite this feeling that some are too sensitive, most people say they wouldn’t feel reluctant to share their views on key culture war issues with colleagues or classmates – even ones that are potentially controversial.

For example, of all the issues asked about, the public are least prepared to talk about trans rights in such a situation – but two-thirds (65%) are still willing to share their views on the issue, compared with one in five (21%) who say they’re reluctant to do so.

And even more people say they’d be willing to discuss immigration (80%) or the Black Lives Matter movement (76%).

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

“Large proportions of the public start from the perspective that political correctness has gone too far, and that other people are too sensitive. Many have a clear view that ‘no-platforming’ is not the best response, and that young people should be exposed to controversial views. There are, however, very different perspectives on this depending on your age and political identities – our views of political correctness are one of the clearest dividing lines in ‘culture war’ issues.

“But we need to avoid concluding that this means we have a new generation of ‘snowflakes’ or a stifled national conversation: the young are always quite different from older people on these sorts of questions, and the large majority of the public still say they are happy to express their views on controversial issues with others.”

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, said:

“Most Britons think ‘political correctness’ has gone too far. At the same time a majority of women, graduates, people from ethnic minorities and those on the left of the political spectrum want people to be more sensitive in their speech. As we have seen throughout this programme of research there are clear differences by age – with the young far keener on ‘progressive’ values and older people favouring ‘traditional’ ones. But there is also a large proportion of people from all groups who think the government should not promote any particular set of values.”

Technical details
Ipsos MORI interviewed online a representative sample of 2,834 adults aged 16+ across the United Kingdom between 26th November and 2nd December 2020. This data has been collected by Ipsos MORI’s UK KnowledgePanel, an online random probability panel which provides gold standard insights into the UK population, by providing bigger sample sizes via the most rigorous research methods. Data are weighted by age, gender, region, Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, education, ethnicity and number of adults in the household in order to reflect the profile of the UK population. All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error.

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