Find Us

How have social and political attitudes changed in the UK over the last 40 years?

FILE - Potential spectators get into their early positions along the Mall, the wide road running from Buckingham Palace in London, July 22, 1986.
FILE - Potential spectators get into their early positions along the Mall, the wide road running from Buckingham Palace in London, July 22, 1986. Copyright Jeff Widener/AP1986
Copyright Jeff Widener/AP1986
By Joshua Askew
Published on
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

Brits today think about many things differently than they did in the 1980s, but some views remain deeply entrenched.


The 40th incarnation of the British Social Attitudes survey was published on Thursday. 

Authored by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), it highlights how social, political and moral thinking has changed in Britain since the 1980s. 

Here are some of its main findings. 

Society is much more liberal

Attitudes towards many sexual and family issues have become strikingly liberal.

In 1983, 50% of those surveyed said same-sex relationships were "always wrong"; now just 9% think so.

Opinions on abortion have changed markedly, too. Today 76% say a woman should be legally allowed a termination if she does not want the child, up from 37% in 1983. 

“The vast social changes that Britain has witnessed over the last 40 years have been accompanied by a near-revolution in attitudes towards many social and moral issues, including sexuality,” said Senior Research Fellow Sir John Curtice in comments published on NatCen's website.  

Kin Cheung/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
London's Regent Street is decorated with Pride flags.Kin Cheung/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Yet some things buck this liberal trend, such as attitudes towards transgender people. 

Only 30% of Brits think someone should be able to change their sex if they want – a drop from 53% in 2019.

That sudden decline comes with discrimination and violence against the transgender community on the rise in Britain. According to the LGBT+ charity Stonewall, two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months. 

An upsurge in support for state action

Views about the role of the state appear to be shifting. 

Nearly twice as many Brits (55%) currently believe the state should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits compared to the 1980s (32%). 

"The pandemic and the cost of living crisis seem to have left the public rather more inclined than at some points in the past to look to government to solve the problems they and the country face," said Curtice. 

However, the independent researchers at NatCen said attitudes towards state action followed "a cyclical pattern" over the decades. 

In 1998, 63% of people wanted higher taxes and spending, but by 2010 it had fallen back to just 31%.


At the same time, the proportion of people who say it is the government's responsibility to keep prices under control now stands at 68%. 

Millions in Britain have had to cut down or skip meals amid a savage cost of living crisis, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in June. 

It attributed this trend to rampant food price inflation and poor state support which have forced 7 million households to make "impossible choices" between food, heating or basic toiletries. 

Greater acceptance of non-traditional families

Brits are seemingly now more accepting of family structures beyond the traditional nuclear arrangement. 


Half of those surveyed agree one parent can bring up a child just as well as two parents – that's compared to 35% who said so in 1994. 

Meanwhile, only 24% of Brits believe that people who want children should get married, down from 70% in 1989. 

Martin Rickett/AP
Pupils arrive at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, England.Martin Rickett/AP

These attitudes have shifted as Britain has seen an increase in the number of non-traditional families.

While data on so-called “sexual minority families” is limited, Britain's Office for National Statistics recorded 212,000 same-sex families in the UK in 2019, a 40% rise since 2015.


Several factors are behind this, including more progressive laws and advances in fertility treatments. 

Yoyoing attitudes towards welfare poverty

The survey found that British people have spates of being more or less generously disposed towards those living in poverty.

During the 2000s, the era of Tony Blair's centrist New Labour, attitudes towards welfare became less generous – but they have since swung back again. 

In 1989, 61% of those surveyed by NatCen thought the "government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes". That figure fell to just 27% in 2009, but now stands at 37%. 


"Although they have fluctuated up and down in response to changing political and economic circumstances, attitudes towards inequality and the economic role of the state are still not that different from those of forty years ago," said Curtice. 

"The debate about these subjects still has a familiar ring to it."

Class still matters

This year's report showed Brits were just as likely to see themselves as middle- or working-class as they were 40 years ago. 


They also still strongly believe that a person's economic and cultural wealth shapes their future.

In the latest survey, as many as 77% say that social class affects someone’s opportunities in Britain "a great deal" or "quite a lot". This is slightly higher than the 70% who thought as much in 1983 and the 66% who did so in 1985.

Brits are also significantly less likely than they have been to see a chance of climbing up the ladder. 

Martin Rickett/AP
A man and his dog sleep in a sleeping bag on the pavement on Piccadilly in central London.Martin Rickett/AP

One-third of those surveyed now think it is very difficult to move from one class to another – almost double the proportion (17%) who said this in 2005.


Social mobility in Britain has decreased since the Conservative government came to power in 2010. 

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from September found there has been a striking breakdown in social mobility, with people growing up in the north of England and those from an ethnic minority background finding it a lot harder than others to become wealthier. 

Young voters lean left

The survey also explored the relationship between age and voting patterns. 

In 2022, centre-left Labour was the most popular political party among under 35s, whereas the Conservatives are favoured by those aged above 55.  


This age gap, which has doubled in size since 2015, barely existed in the 1980s, wrote NatCen.

However, though Labour is historically associated with more state intervention, younger people are in fact less likely than older people to say taxation and spending on "health, education and social benefits" should be increased.

In the latest survey, only 43% of those aged under 35 support that view, compared with 67% of those aged 55 and over. 

Young people may have "become aware of how, in an ageing society, public spending has become increasingly focused on the needs of the old – illustrated most vividly perhaps by the increasing cost of university tuition while old age pensions have been treated generously," said Curtice. 


"As a result, their concern about inequality is not matched by greater support for more spending.”

Share this articleComments

You might also like

WATCH: King Charles' opening of new parliament of the United Kingdom

Euro 2024: 'England wouldn't be into the final without migrants' says new UK campaign

WATCH: The giant yellow pumpkin of London, Yayoi Kusama's latest masterpiece