Leading article: Politicians should lead opinion, not just follow it

A nation's social attitudes are not a destination but a journey

Related Topics

Is Britain a socially liberal or socially conservative country? In one respect the question is meaningless, because the answer will depend on personal perspective. To the radical libertarian, Britain will probably always seem like a hopelessly conservative nation, just as to the extreme reactionary it will resemble a sink of moral laxity.

But the annual British Social Attitudes study, released today, does, at least, help us understand the direction of travel. In 1983, when the first British Social Attitudes survey was conducted, 62 per cent of those questioned regarded homosexuality as "wrong". 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.

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. Another interesting finding of the survey is that more people are willing to describe themselves as "Conservative". 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.

But politicians need to handle social attitudes with care, especially when it comes to drawing up public policy. The decision of the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, to dismiss Professor David Nutt, the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for criticising the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis ought to have been popular in the country based on a crude reading of these trends. But many, in fact, felt it made Mr Johnson look as if he was incapable of dealing with dissent from an advisor, thus creating an impression of weakness. Meanwhile, the increasingly relaxed attitude of the public to cohabitation poses a dilemma for the Conservatives, who are committed to creating a new marriage tax break.

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 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.

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. The same relationship can be seen between legislation to protect ethnic minorities from discrimination and public attitudes towards racial difference.

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...


Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?