Every year, for the last 40 years, the British Social Attitudes survey has asked how we see ourselves and the world. And over that period, things have changed dramatically. Ideas that seemed natural and normal in the mid 1980s now seem extraordinary. This year’s report documents some of those changes
Some researchers argue that our fundamental social and political beliefs are mainly set around the age of 20. The people who were that age in 1986, when the survey began, are now in their mid 50s. They were shaped by a world where most people claimed to be religious, believed that sex outside marriage, and homosexuality, was wrong, and had a fairly clear sense of their political and class identity. The Cold War still dominated international affairs, deindustrialisation, privatisation and the Irish “Troubles” dominated domestic politics. More people believed that a woman’s place is in the home, than the reverse. For their grandchildren, now in their 30s, none of these is now true, and the latest report, just published, shows the trends continuing.
Religion: a new divide
In 1983, two thirds of people identified as Christian and a clear majority routinely ticked the “Church of England” box, whatever their actual religious practice. Now they don’t. Most claim not to be religious, but the religious minority remains strong.
We are now not merely less overtly religious, many are actively hostile. Almost two thirds say that “religions bring more conflict than peace”, and a third now say they are “very or extremely non-religious”. Half say they have no religion at all, and less than half have no confidence in religious organisations.
However, the picture is not uniform. There has been a growth in “minority religions”, including non-Christian and evangelical forms of Christianity. The people who describe themselves as “very or extremely religious” are very much a minority, but their numbers are not falling.
Do we trust science?
While support for religion has declined, belief on science and technology has not. Three quarters believe that “science and technology is making our lives easier and more comfortable”.
However, a quarter of people think that “we believe too often in science as compared with feelings and faith”. But this is clearly linked to religious belief. For example, people are divided along religious lines over access to genetic testing during pregnancy, which can lead to abortion in some cases. While three quarters of all people support testing, the figure is only half for Catholics and people of non-Christian religions. However, the figure for those who identify as Church of England matches the general population, which might suggest that “Church of England” still remains the default position for people with no strong views.
More sex please: we’re British
Over the 40-year span on the Survey, attitudes to gender roles have changed dramatically. Fewer than 10% of people now believe in the traditional “breadwinner/homemaker” distinction between men and women, which half the population supported when the survey began. The overwhelming majority of people no longer think that there are particular jobs better suited to men or women.
The change is equally dramatic for sexual attitudes. In 1986, only 42% believed that premarital sex is “not wrong at all”; now the figure is around 75%. In 1987 only 10% of people thought that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are not wrong at all”. The figure now is near 70%. And over 80% of people say they “are not prejudiced at all” towards transgender people.
But once again, religious belief remains a dividing factor. Three quarters of non-believers support same sex civil partnerships, but only a third of believers in non-Christian religions, and 60% of Christians do so.
We think we are getting poorer
Over 60% of people think that “there is a lot of poverty”, that it is getting worse, and will continue to do so. These views are held more strongly by Labour Party supporters and people with children, and lower among the retired. The proportion of people who think large differences in income are acceptable to reward talents and efforts is declining, though that view is still held by about half of all people.
We are political: just not traditionally
Formal support for political parties has been in decline across the 40 years. In 1987, 44% described themselves as identifying strongly or very strongly with a political party, and their affiliation correlated strongly with social class. Since then, identification with a party has fallen to 35%, and now distinctions of age, education and social liberalism have taken over from class as the basis of the divide.
The most dramatic recent development has been the emergence, since 2016, of Brexit as a more powerful political divide than traditional party. There are many reasons why people voted for and against membership of the EU. There is good evidence that many people were voting for reasons unassociated with the EU itself – dislike of the government, concern about falling living standards, increased insecurity etc. But these all coalesced around “Brexit” as a label for people to identify around. Six years after the referendum decision, three quarters of people still described themselves as “strong” or “very strong” leavers or remainers. In the summer of 2022, when the survey was conducted, leave v remain was still a more significant divide than left and right.
The British Social Attitudes Survey is the longest and most comprehensive study of these attitudes across Britain. They show a society undergoing significant change.
Many beliefs and attitudes which were taken for granted in the mid 1980s now seem strange. The basis of our social divisions has changed, and in some ways we are more polarised. As religion has declined in popular support, it seems to be increasingly important as a dividing factor in social attitudes. And political divides remain deep, though they now rest more on age and education than on social class. At the moment polling suggests that Brexit itself has been pushed off most people’s radar by other concerns, but that does not mean that the issues which drove the leave vote are not relevant to people. Only time will tell whether those divides continue to be a powerful force or come to be replaced by something else.
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