Thousands march on London Trans+ Pride in July (Picture: Guy Smallman)

A new study has found that Britain is far more liberal-minded than it was 40 years ago. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Think of the movements we’ve seen since then.

They include the fight to defend abortion rights in the 1980s, the battle for an equal age of consent for gay men, the #MeToo movement and the rise of a trans movement.

The British social attitudes survey out last week marked its 40th year of mapping Britain’s culture and political landscape. It described the transformation in public opinion on social and moral issues as “a near revolution”.

The survey refutes the idea that working class people are always backward and reactionary. Half of respondents said same-sex relationships were “always wrong” in 1983. Just 9 percent agreed in 2022. A woman’s right to choose on abortion was supported by 76 percent of people in 2022, compared to 37 percent in the 1980s

The survey found a similar trend for attitudes towards sex before marriage, having children outside marriage and traditional gender roles in the workplace and home.

We are impacted by the world around us and ideas can shift  as the conditions we live in change. That’s why in revolutionary periods, hundreds of years of bigotry can be swept away in a matter of weeks—showing the potential we have to change the world.

But that’s not inevitable. It doesn’t follow that a period of strikes and demonstrations always destroys reactionary ideas. Without conscious argument, backward views can remain untouched. And even if ideas change at one point they can slip backwards if struggle declines or is defeated.

The survey says age has an impact on results, with younger people being more left wing and that they have a sense of injustice and inequality. It says these changes come from more people going to university, more women going to work and the decline in marriage.

This risks downplaying the part that struggle from below has had in the fight against homophobia and for abortion rights. It would be wrong to think that any of these changes came to us in our sleep, or fell from the sky. Attitudes have changed because people have fought back.

Yet while attitudes have changed over the last 40 years, we still live in the same system that breeds inequality and oppression.

Forty years ago 75 percent of people regarded ironing as a woman’s job compared to 16 percent now. But it also found that the majority of unpaid housework is still a woman’s burden.

Ideas might be changing, but it doesn’t mean the world around us is. That’s because the system is still intact and doesn’t give up easily. The study also notes attitudes towards transgender people, recorded from 2016. These have become more volatile with a sharp decline in public support.

There has been “an overall gradual erosion in support towards transgender rights”. It shows the direct impact the Tories’ attacks and hatred towards trans people have.

While ideas can change when fighting from below, oppression and bigotry from the top still have a hold. People describing themselves as “not prejudiced” towards transgender people dropped from 82 percent to 64 percent between 2021 and 2022. And while 58 percent of the public agreed in 2016 that trans people should be able to change the sex on their birth certificate, this dropped to 30 percent.

The fight for trans rights, and real equality, is far from over. Movements led by increasingly young and militant people continue to rage at the Tories and their system.

Ideas are moving in the right direction, thanks to the battles from below. To make those changes a permanent reality for all means continuing to be part of working class struggles that attack the system.


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