Britain is the most socially liberal it’s ever been. Could somebody let our politicians know? | Andy Beckett

If you’re a social conservative in Britain, these are the best of times and the worst of times. They are the worst because, as the rightwing press warns daily, liberal and other subversive values are spreading: in universities, cultural bodies, local councils, corporate boardrooms and big cities. Even private schools, previously assumed to be a reliable conservative production line, are showing signs of malfunction. “The hard-left’s woke private school revolution is here to stay,” despaired the Telegraph last year. “Private schools have started eagerly introducing their pupils to all the hottest new progressive ideas.”

Yet while social conservatism appears to be under threat in many institutions, in politics it seems more influential than ever. On complex issues such as crime, immigration, patriotism and the value of work, family and the monarchy, Labour and the Tories compete to offer the most traditionalist stances and policies, presented in a ritualised language calculated to appeal to socially conservative voters: “crackdowns”, “security”, “stability”, “respect”.

Meanwhile, Reform UK – the descendent of Ukip currently luring away a crucial portion of the Tory vote – has moved from Brexit purism to promising to “stop all the woke nonsense”. And the SNP, while officially still liberal on social issues, last month almost elected as its leader Kate Forbes, who has expressed highly conservative views on equal marriage, transgender rights and sex outside marriage. The SNP’s continuation as a socially progressive force suddenly looks less assured.

‘The pipe-smoking, calculating Wilson was hardly a 60s radical. But he recognised that Britain was changing.’ Photograph: Frank Martin/The Guardian

To an extent, social conservatism’s political strength can be explained by Britain’s current voting habits and electoral geography. Whether in any future Scottish independence referendum or in Westminster elections, the voters that many party strategists believe matter most are middle-aged or older, traditional in outlook, disproportionately likely to vote but fickle. Some of them live in the endlessly examined red wall; others in rural and small-town Scotland, which the SNP is assumed to need as much as its younger, more liberal urban strongholds.

This month, the influential centre-left pressure group, Labour Together, identified a further supposedly vital category of illiberal voter. “Stevenage woman” was said to be like many voters in suburban England: “young, hard-working, but struggling to get by … leaning a little towards social conservatism”. Britain’s supermarket shelves may regularly be empty these days, but when it comes to socially conservative politics, there is a seemingly limitless supply.

Yet what if that supply is outstripping the actual demand for it? What if our politics is out of step with the way many Britons think about social issues, and how they behave in their own lives?

Gloomy liberals may be surprised to learn that the latest edition of the authoritative British Social Attitudes survey concludes that “Britain has become markedly more liberal … over the course of the last decade”. On issues such as immigration, and equal opportunities for women and racial and sexual minorities, “once widely shared assumptions” of a traditional kind “are now being challenged, and … this development is not confined to a supposed cultural and educational elite”. Much of our politics is lagging behind social trends, the survey implies.

This could mean that Westminster politicians, in order to remain relevant, will ultimately have to liberalise their positions – as the Conservatives eventually did by following the Thatcher government’s section 28, which banned “the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, with David Cameron’s legislation for equal marriage. Yet such shifts within parties can take an awfully long time – 25 years in that case – and in the meantime, wider democratic politics is damaged. A major overlooked factor in our modern disillusionment with politicians is that so many socially conservative policies seem cynical and performative, rather than sincere and practical. How many Britons, even those with an authoritarian outlook, really believe that yet another “crackdown on crime” is going to work?

Moreover, many voters know that the lives of politicians often don’t match their stern public stances. As prime minister, Boris Johnson presided over a benefits system designed by his party to punish poor people for having more than two children, while being typically evasive about his own fathering of more than half a dozen. For Tory politicians especially, as for the tabloid moralisers who urge them on, “traditional values” tend to be something you advocate for everyone else, while living less strictly yourself.

The privileged position of social conservatives in our press and politics also artificially prolongs the life of reactionary attitudes, which are often based more on myths, fear and prejudice than everyday realities. In focus groups held by the main parties in red wall constituencies, voters regularly express a deep hostility to immigrants – while living in places where for decades the population problem has been people leaving rather than arriving.

Important Labour figures argue that “respecting” such views is simply good politics, given the electoral system, which always hugely empowers swing voters, who tend not to have the most progressive values. But even if Labour wins office – an outcome that feels less certain again after weeks of inconclusive squabbles with the Tories about who is toughest on crime – siding with illiberal Britain may be storing up trouble. If being tough on crime was an effective approach, we would have one of Europe’s lowest crime rates, rather than just one of its highest prison populations.

Authoritarian British voters have a history of ultimately preferring Tory toughness to the Labour version, as Keir Starmer may discover in Downing Street – if not earlier. He has been talking up his prosecutorial credentials for months, but this week Rishi Sunak started calling him “Sir Softy”, regardless. Sunak’s smirk as he said it in the Commons suggested the Tories think the smear has potential.

This country has not had a socially liberal government for a very long time – arguably not since Harold Wilson’s premierships in the 60s and 70s. He abolished the death penalty, passed our first laws against racial discrimination, legislated for equal pay for women, loosened divorce law and legalised homosexuality. The pipe-smoking, calculating Wilson was hardly a 60s radical. But he recognised that Britain was changing, that his party could guide and benefit from that change, and that where politically possible Labour ought to be on the side of freedom and against prejudice. It’s well past time that another Labour prime minister did the same.

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