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07 March 2023

UK now among most socially liberal of countries

There have been huge shifts in attitudes on issues such as homosexuality, casual sex, abortion and more

The King's logo on a pride bus, with a giant rainbow flag flying above

A growing liberalisation: how social attitudes have shifted in the UK and beyond

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The UK now ranks among the most socially liberal countries internationally, following huge shifts in attitudes on issues such as homosexuality, casual sex, abortion, euthanasia and divorce, according to new data. 

Of around 20 countries included in a study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the UK emerges as one of the most accepting nations, with attitudes also softening on prostitution and suicide, even if these are still seen as unjustifiable to the vast majority.

However, UK attitudes are relatively less liberal on the death penalty, as the country has a more favourable view of capital punishment than various comparable nations, despite Britons’ support for it declining in recent years.

The findings were produced for a major new research programme as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world that has been in operation since 1981.

The latest UK data, collected in 2022, builds on previous surveys that asked the public to rate the extent to which they found various actions “justifiable” or not, with data for other nations collected at various points throughout the latest wave of the WVS, which spanned 2017 to 2022.


Two-thirds (66%) of the British public now say that homosexuality is justifiable – up from 12% in 1981. And much of this change has occurred over a short timeframe: as recently as 2009, only a third (33%) thought homosexuality was justifiable.

Of around 20 nations included in the study, only three – Sweden (81%), Norway (76%) and Germany (67%) – are more accepting of homosexuality than the UK on this measure.

The UK (67%) also ranks behind only three countries for agreement with the statement “homosexual couples are as good parents as other couples”.

Casual sex

In 1999, one in 10 (10%) Britons thought having casual sex was justifiable. More than four times as many (42%) held this view in 2022, with a considerable rise since as recently as 2018 (27%).

This shift means the UK is now the fourth-most accepting of casual sex, ahead of countries including France (26%) and Norway (33%) – and not far off Australia (48%), which is the most accepting.


In 2022, around half (48%) the British public said abortion was justifiable – more than three times the proportion who said the same in 1981 (14%).

The UK again ranks fourth as most accepting of abortion, with Sweden (74%) and Norway (62%) on top, as far more accepting than other nations.


The share of the British public who think euthanasia is justifiable more than doubled between 1981 and 2022, rising from 20% to 47%.

Germany (55%), Australia (50%) and France (49%) are the only countries where a greater proportion think euthanasia is justifiable.


Between 1981 and 2022, the proportion of Britons who said divorce is justifiable rose from 18% to 64%.

Only Sweden (79%) and Norway (66%) are more accepting of divorce, while the UK is far above some other developed nations such as the US (38%) and Italy (40%).


Prostitution is seen as acceptable by much a much smaller proportion of the British public, but even so, attitudes have still softened somewhat: 7% said it was justifiable in 1981, compared with 17% in 2022.

The UK is now fifth-most likely to think prostitution is justifiable – ahead of the US (11%), France (10%) and several other developed nations, but behind Australia (27%), Germany (24%), Spain (19%) and Canada (18%).


Suicide is also seen as justifiable by a relatively small minority of the population, but that minority has nonetheless grown, rising from 6% to 19% between 1981 and 2022.

The UK now ranks among the most likely to say suicide is justifiable, along with France (19%), Germany (18%) and Spain (17%).

A generational divide?

While younger people are generally more likely to hold socially liberal views on these issues, all generations have become more accepting. For example:

  • 8% of Baby Boomers said casual sex was justifiable in 2009, compared with 30% by 2022 – although Gen Z (67%) and Millennials (55%) are still far more likely than older cohorts to hold this view.

  • 8% of Gen X said suicide was justifiable in 1990, which had risen to 19% by 2022 – on a par with Millennials (20%), but below Gen Z (30%), who stand out on this issue.

The death penalty: where the UK ranks as less liberal

One issue on which the UK ranks as less socially liberal relative to other peer nations is the death penalty. One in five (21%) think capital punishment is justifiable – higher than Greece (4%), Italy (6%), Germany (7%), Sweden (8%), Norway (8%) and Spain (17%), though lower than Australia (25%), France (25%) and the US (30%).

And a further 35% of the UK indicate that the death penalty it is potentially justifiable. Taken together, this means a majority (56%) think it may at least be acceptable in certain circumstances.

Yet British attitudes on this issue have become more liberal, even if not to the same extent as elsewhere. Trends only cover a more recent timeframe, but the share the British public who are certain that the death penalty is justifiable has nonetheless fallen from 32% in 2009 to 21% in 2022.

Actions relating to cheating remain unacceptable to most – but not all – of the public

Three-quarters (75%) of the UK think avoiding a fare on public transport is not justifiable, but another quarter (24%) think it can maybe or definitely be justified – and this rises to a majority (56%) of people aged 18 to 24, who are by far most likely to hold this view.

Similarly, around one in seven (15%) people think is at least potentially justifiable to claim government benefits to which you are not entitled. And again, there is a big age divide in views: 18-24s (29%) are around three times as likely as those aged 65+ (9%) to think such behaviour is either maybe or definitely justifiable.

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

“It’s easy to lose sight of just how much more liberal the UK has become over a relatively short period of time, and how liberal we are relative to many other nations. What were once pressing moral concerns – things like homosexuality, divorce and casual sex – have become simple facts of life for much of the public, and we now rank as one of the most accepting countries internationally.

“This mostly isn’t just driven by younger generations replacing older generations. All generations have changed their views significantly, although the oldest pre-war cohort now often stand out as quite different, and on some issues, like casual sex, there is a clear generational hierarchy, with the youngest much more accepting.

“The death penalty is one issue where we rank as comparatively less liberal, with many peer nations more disapproving of its use, even if UK attitudes have softened in recent years. It is also much more related to political identities, with Conservative voters much more supportive of capital punishment than Labour voters, which helps explain why it continues to be brought up in political discussions.

“The trends in attitudes also highlight likely future directions on particularly sensitive topics. Support for ‘euthanasia’ has increased significantly, from 20% in 1981 to 47% now, no doubt due to greater awareness of the issue and campaigning. Assisted dying is, of course, still illegal in the UK, but it is seen as much more acceptable by the UK public than other illegal behaviours asked about in the study.

“The trend in attitudes to suicide needs careful interpretation and monitoring, however, particularly given the much greater proportion of Gen Z who see it as justifiable. It could simply be a sign of an increasingly tolerant society and a cohort of young that better understands and engages on mental health issues – but while there have not been significant increases in suicide rates among the young, there has been an increase in suicide attempts and self-harming behaviours. The implications of these shifting perceptions are therefore important to understand.”

Technical details

2022 UK data comes from a random probability sample of 3,056 adults aged 18+ interviewed by Ipsos through a mix on face-to-face and online survey methods. Data has been weighted by region, education and age interlocked with gender to be nationally representative.

For analysis of trends over time, data is nationally representative for Great Britain due to a lack of available trend data from Northern Ireland, and is based on surveys of 1,000 or more people aged 18+.

Samples for other countries are all nationally representative and made up of at least 1,000 people. Information on the sampling methodology these nations is available via the World Values Survey Association website.

Data produced for this research is used in wave 7 of the World Values Survey, which included around 90 countries and ran from 2017 to 2022. See the full report for the precise year each country was surveyed. The report focuses on a cross-section of 24 countries selected based on the availability of reliable and weighted data and then narrowed down, focusing on global coverage (based on the UN's standardised country coding system), regional coverage and population size. This selection gives coverage of 12 of the 17 UN M49 geographic regions across 24 countries, representing almost 50% of the world's population (source: World Bank). Not all questions are asked in each country in every wave of the study, and so the number of countries compared on each question can vary.