First, the ‘good’ news:
In 1983, when the first British Social Attitudes survey was conducted, 62 per cent of those questioned regarded homosexuality as "wrong".Hurrah! We are all getting more tolerant, right? Truly, the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter will align with Mars any day now...
Today, the proportion of the public who admit to disapproving has declined to 33 per cent.
There has been a marked liberalisation of attitudes towards marriage too. Today, 14 per cent of people strongly believe that couples who have children ought to get married. In 1989, that view was held by 25 per cent of the public.
Now, the bad news (for ‘Indy’ readers, that is):
Attitudes on drugs have followed a less linear path. In 1993, 67 per cent thought cannabis ought to be illegal. In 2001, that had fallen to 46 per cent. But it has since climbed to 58 per cent today. And only 4 per cent presently believe the drug should be legalised.Hmmm, how come?
Another interesting finding of the survey is that more people are willing to describe themselves as "Conservative".What!?!
What could explain this? It can’t possibly be because people are getting less tolerant, we’ve just seen that they are becoming more tolerant, haven’t we?
So, something must have changed.
I know, it must be the Conservatives!
This is perhaps a reflection of the achievement of David Cameron in changing public perceptions of his party, which, before his leadership, tended to be associated with social intolerance.I like the ‘perhaps’, that covers a multitude of sins…
So, how do attitudes change?
It is important to understand how attitudes change. The authors of this survey suggest that people in their 60s appear to have become more tolerant about cohabitation because of their personal experience of becoming a grandparent to a child born outside of marriage. Their attitudes are shaped by what they see and experience in their daily lives.Hmm, we get more tolerant when we see that changes are not so bad, and do not affect us as we expected them to.
So, surely it follows that, if we see changes as a result of the proliferation of drugs that we don’t like, then it’s right to get less tolerant of them. Yes?
Ah, no. Thought not…
The ‘Indy’ has a suggestion for how we could accelerate the progressive agenda, though:
In the end, confident and successful politicians lead, rather than simply follow, public opinion. They are not bound by prevailing social attitudes when devising policies, but help to shape them.It’s not the politicians who are out of step, it’s the people…
The social reforms of the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, in the 1960s were not popular at the time, but they helped change attitudes towards divorce and abortion over the decades. It has been a similar tale with New Labour's record on promoting homosexual rights, from the age of consent to civil partnerships. This programme has coincided with a general increase in tolerance towards gay people.So forget all that guff about tolerating what we no longer see as a threat (and ignore the fact that certain sectors of society are getting less tolerant that the mainstream), it’s the politicians wot dun it after all!
What this survey helps to show is that a nation's social attitudes are a journey, not a destination. Political leaders need to be prepared to chart a course, rather than merely be carried by the tide.You forget who votes in those politicians, don’t you?
If they advance too progressive a platform at election time, then they won't get the necessary votes to form that parliament. Well, unless they are just a pack of lying bas...