Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Same sex relationships: a very modern morality tale

by Chris on 28th June 2017

The publication of the 34th British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey report today chronicles another chapter in the remarkable liberalisation of attitudes to homosexuality during the last 25 years. In this very modern morality tale we are increasingly choosing liberalism over conservatism and the pace at which we are doing so shows no sign of abating. If you’re looking for the end of liberalism, you won’t find it here.

The proportion of people who think same-sex relationships are not wrong at all has increased from 18 percent in 1993 to 64 percent today. The increase since 2012 alone is 17 percentage points. The 1993 figure is significant because it was the first time it had overtaken the figure of 17 percent in 1983, the year of the survey’s inception. There had been a hardening of attitudes during the 1980s with the arrival of AIDS and the concurrent moral backlash around Section 28.

That all too recent moment in history is perhaps best encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 conference speech when she lamented that children were being denied the right to traditional moral teaching and, instead, being taught that they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay.’ You have to wonder what the iron lady would make of the story today.

It all seems a long time ago. The authors of today’s report speculate that the acceleration in liberalisation has continued apace because we have reached ‘a tipping point after which normalisation occurs.’ To put it another way, what is perceived as normal has changed. This is noteworthy precisely because, during the 1980s, the most vociferous opponents of more liberal attitudes were prone to stressing the abnormality of homosexuality.

A striking feature of the data is the generational effect. For example, 75% of people born in the 1980s say that same-sex relations are not wrong at all compared to 41% of those born in the 1940s. This has been a feature of the data over time. But it is clear that older people are becoming more liberal too because changes in attitudes have also driven a wider cultural shift which spans generations.

However, there also remains a marked difference by educational level. The group which has the lowest proportion of people saying that same-sex relations are not wrong at all is those with no formal qualifications for whom the figure is 38%. This is almost half the proportion of those with a degree (74%). Both these trends merit further exploration and there is a likely connection between them, exposure to people and ideas.

When my husband and I married recently we were accompanied into the chamber by two children, aged 10 and 8, who live on our stair. Their parents are good friends and the children have known us as a couple all their lives. Their experience is in stark contrast to our own; at their ages, we didn’t know what gay was let alone know any gay people. Their acceptance of us will doubtless be challenged in the world beyond our stair, but it will most likely endure because it is intuitive rather than learnt in the face of prejudice.

At the other end of the generational divide we also received good wishes from people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, people whose views in some cases have become more liberal over time in part because they know us.

These are the kind of personal and family stories that underpin the enormous shift in attitudes we have witnessed. Changes we could scarcely imagine in the dark days of the 1980s. It seems hard to believe that in 1987 when my late partner and I bought our first house together, only 11 percent of the population thought there was nothing wrong with our relationship.

Both my husband and I have a range of formal qualifications and because of that, we have been exposed to a far more diverse range of people and ideas than might otherwise have been the case. My own coming out journey took place at university in the late 1970s. People who have not had the opportunities I have are no less likely to be gay than me. But they may be less likely to have encountered the differences of experience and perspective that helped make it possible for me to explore my sexuality and for those around me to accept it.

There is an important political and policy lesson here; if we value a more tolerant society, education and social mobility matter. We can scold intolerance and on occasions well we might. But we are most likely to nurture liberalism if we create opportunities for those who get left behind to share the world we value.

Today’s report also arrives hard on the heels of two recent moments when the political spotlight has been on sexuality and our attitudes towards it, Tim Farron’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party’s new arrangement with the DUP. Both provide interesting lenses through which to view today’s figures.

One of the factors at play in the discussion about Tim Farron’s views was the extent to which his version of Christianity was typical. In fact, many of those who were most vociferous about his views were gay Christians themselves who disagreed with his evangelical brand of Christianity.

BSA data has repeatedly shown that religious belief is a key differentiator in attitudes to same-sex relations. However, attitudes amongst Christian groups have also liberalised over the last 25 years and there has been a notable shift towards acceptance since 2012.

As the report authors point out the acceptance of Christian groups is increasing at an even faster rate than the general population. For example, the proportion of Anglicans and Catholics who say same-sex relationships are not wrong at all has increased in both cases by 24 percentage points since 2012 to 55% and 62% respectively.

The BSA survey is not conducted in Northern Ireland. However, there is a comparable study, the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey and it is worth looking at the data in the light of the recent controversy around the DUP. Unfortunately, there is no data for 2016 but the data from 2012 are revealing in two respects.

First although in 2012 attitudes in Northern Ireland were slightly less liberal (43% thought that same-sex relations were not wrong at all compared to the BSA figure of 47%) the pace of liberalisation in Northern Ireland had been greater during the previous eight years which had resulted in a notable narrowing of the gap.

Second just as attitudes amongst Catholics in England, Scotland and Wales have been more liberal over time than attitudes amongst Anglicans and other Christian groups, attitudes amongst Catholics in Northern Ireland have been more liberal than attitudes amongst Protestants. And the difference in Northern Ireland is far greater. In 2012 48% of Catholics thought that same-sex relations were not wrong at all as opposed to 31% of Protestants.

Because we don’t have more recent data from Northern Ireland we don’t know for sure whether the acceleration in liberal attitudes elsewhere in the UK over the last five years has been matched there. However, we do have some clues. We know that despite the DUP’s continued veto on equal marriage, there is polling data to suggest that liberalisation has occurred both within the wider Protestant community and amongst DUP supporters.

There is a parallel across the religious divide here. Just as the establishment of the Catholic Church has clung onto a more conservative view despite shifting attitudes within the laity, so the establishment with the DUP appears to be doing the same in relation to its electoral base.

The debates which have ensued in relation to both Farron and the DUP have been impassioned and at times unhelpfully shrill. But both are also a reminder that the lens through which we view the liberalisation of attitudes is one that has traditionally framed the debate as a moral one. Indeed the chapter in the BSA report is entitled Moral issues.

And it is a moral debate not about who we are, but what we do or at any rate what people imagine we do. In that sense, it is a different kind of moral question from that which might apply to attitudes to other groups. In this debate, the morality test has been about what would be rights holders do rather than what attitude holders think.

What both the Farron and DUP affairs remind us is that those moral questions have been framed by religion and religious institutions, even in the face of their adherents. Perhaps there’s no getting away from that.

But maybe it’s time to accept that normal has changed. To start from the premise that the right to be gay is indeed inalienable.

Previous post:

Next post: