Key findings / Personal freedom: the continued rise of social liberalism

Personal freedom: the continued rise of social 


The EU referendum vote result led some on the left and right to speculate that this was the result of a backlash against greater social liberalism (Eagle & Baird (2017); Lawson (2016)). We find no evidence that there has been a public turn against same-sex relationships, or indeed on many other personal issues. In fact, on some issues such as same-sex
relationships, the long-term increase in socially liberal attitudes has actually accelerated.

Two-thirds of people (64%) now say that same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”, up from 59% in 2015, and 47% in 2012. On pre-marital sex, a significant majority of people (75%) say that it is “not at all wrong”, an increase of 11 percentage points since 2012. Interestingly, this liberalisation in attitudes to both same-sex relationships and pre-marital sex is occurring in every age cohort.

Record levels of people say an abortion should be allowed if a woman decides on her own she does not want the child (70%) or if a couple cannot afford any more children (65%). Most remarkably, the proportion of Catholics who agree an abortion should be allowed if a woman does not want the child has increased from 33% in 1985 to 61% in 2016, which precedes a recent softening of the Catholic Church’s position on abortion during 2015-16 (Povoledo & Stack, 2016).

Acceptance of same-sex relationships has increased quickly in the last four years, especially among Christians


Prejudice about transgender people is examined for the first time in this year’s report. We find that the vast majority of the public (84%) describe themselves as “not prejudiced at all” towards transgender people. However, less than half of people say that a suitably
qualified transgender person should definitely be employed as a police officer or primary school teacher (43% and 41% respectively), suggesting that there is a notable gap between the theory and practice of  people’s attitudes.

So on personal issues, Britain emerges an increasingly socially liberal country. However, it is important to add that we should not assume that this applies to other issues. One important area, for example, not covered here and needing further research is our attitude to race; forthcoming work by NatCen suggests that no such similar liberalisation of attitudes has occurred in that area (Kelley et al, 2017).

Author: Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes, The National Centre for Social Research