March 7, 2023 - 7:15am

The UK ranks among the world’s most socially liberal countries, new data shows, yet large swathes of the public remain socially conservative. A study from the Policy Institute at King’s College London measured 24 countries and their respective attitudes to issues like homosexuality, casual sex, divorce, abortion and euthanasia, asking respondents whether each was ‘justifiable’. 

Two-thirds of British people think homosexuality is justifiable (65%), which places the country behind only Sweden, Norway and Germany, marking an increase from 12% acceptance in 1981, when the survey began. Yet it is striking that 34% still oppose same-sex practices entirely. Similarly, nearly a quarter (23%) of UK respondents disagreed with the statement “homosexual couples are as good parents as other couples”.

Source: The Policy Institute/World Values Survey

When it comes to acceptance of casual sex, the UK ranks fourth globally, yet only 42% of Britons think it is justifiable, up from 10% in 1999. Meanwhile, a minority of UK residents (48%) believe that abortion and euthanasia are acceptable, with only 64% thinking the same about divorce. It is striking that, even with these numbers, Britain is still more liberal than most of Europe and the United States. Indeed, just 38% of Americans say divorce can be justified, and only 24% say the same about abortion. 

A smaller number — 17% — of Britons support prostitution, while there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a generational divide in terms of attitudes to sex. The Policy Institute finds that while 67% of members of Generation Z (comprising those born in 1997 and after) think casual sex is justifiable, this figure is 30% for Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). This goes some way to countering the widely-held belief that today’s young people are more prudish than their forebears (55% of millennials agree), yet is hardly indicative of a libertine takeover.

Source: The Policy Institute/World Values Survey

The UK is noticeably more authoritarian on capital punishment than on other social issues, according to the study. One in five UK respondents thinks it is justifiable — more than twice as many as each of Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway — even if this figure has fallen from 32% in 2009. Considering that 35% of the UK think that the death penalty is potentially justifiable, that means that a majority — 56% — of Britons support the use of execution in some circumstances. The UK is, in light of this, less liberal in terms of public approval of the death penalty than Russia and the Philippines. 

Source: The Policy Institute/World Values Survey

While the UK as a whole ranks among Europe’s more liberal countries, the Home Nations are not uniform in this respect. Northern Ireland is significantly more conservative than the other constituent parts, with 49% acceptance of homosexuality, 48% acceptance of divorce and 25% acceptance of abortion.

Across a range of social issues, the UK has moved substantially in the last few decades, making it far more liberal than the majority of its international peers. Yet this data suggests that there are still substantial sections of the population that are more conservative than we might think.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.