Liberal instincts unite us more than they divide usby Peter Kellner / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Read Philip Collins on who British liberals should vote for?
How liberal are we? To a large extent, it depends on what we mean by “liberal.” Is it a normative idea, embracing freedoms of which we approve but not those of which we disapprove? Or does it have a wider meaning, to include freedoms of which we disapprove? Is the ban on smoking in offices, pubs and restaurants a liberal or anti-liberal measure? What about bed-and-breakfast owners who claim the right, on religious grounds, to exclude gay couples?
Let’s start with those issues on which there is broad agreement about language—for example the debates of the past half century on abortion, cannabis laws, gay marriage and immigration. Opponents of reform generally accept—even boast—that theirs is an anti-liberal stance.
The liberal stance commands a clear majority on two. By 64-28 per cent we think “parliament was right to allow same-sex couples to get married.” And there is a broad consensus: not one political or demographic group clearly opposes gay marriage. Some Conservative MPs grumble that a number of activists have switched to the UK Independence Party on this issue; but as far as the voting public is concerned, most people who voted Tory at the last election back reform. Second, by 53-25 per cent we reject the view that “it is too easy for women to obtain an abortion.” Again, there is a broad consensus across all political and demographic groups.
But on immigration and cannabis, liberals are in a minority. Conservative voters have broadly the same attitudes to both issues: by 61-29 per cent they oppose the legalisation of cannabis; by 64-29 per cent they think immigration has been bad for Britain. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are slightly more liberal on cannabis, and significantly more liberal on immigration.
So far, so expected. But many Ukip voters respond differently. By 91-7 per cent they dislike immigration, but as many as 38 per cent would like cannabis legalised. This fits with the view that some people like Ukip because they dislike the political classes and want the state to regulate us less.
This shows up most clearly when we consider the next group of statements—those where progressive politics has aligned with greater regulation. In all four, the public supports laws restricting what people can do: the marketing of “junk foods” to children (by 74-19 per cent); banning smoking in pubs, offices and restaurants (65-29 per cent); allowing doctors to insist that patients who fall ill because of their lifestyles should lead healthier lives as a condition for receiving treatment (57-32 per cent); and preventing bed-and-breakfast owners with strong religious views from turning away gay couples (50-39 per cent).
It is here that the anti-state, low-regulation instincts of many Ukip voters come to the fore. Take smoking. The views of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters are almost identical, with big majorities backing the current laws. But as many as 48 per cent of Ukip voters think the law has gone too far, while 49 per cent disagree. Likewise with bed and breakfast. By two to one, Ukip voters want the freedom of people with religious views to trump the rights of gay couples.
This is also one of the issues on which there is a big generation gap. By 60-24 per cent, people under 40 want the law to protect gay couples seeking somewhere to spend the night, while a clear majority of people over 60 take the opposing view.
The biggest generation gap of all concerns pornography, one of the final four issues we tested. The public as a whole—and, indeed, the supporters of each of the four main parties—divide evenly on whether the law should ban explicit hardcore porn, showing sex between adults, from being accessed online. But people under 25 oppose the law by as much as three to one, while the over 60s support a ban by two to one.
Pornography also throws up a big gender gap—the only one of our 12 propositions to do so. Women back a legal ban by two to one, while men oppose a ban by the same margin.
I draw three conclusions from the survey as a whole—one cheering, one less so and one that depends on your outlook. It is surely a good thing that, with rare exceptions, support for and opposition to liberal values do not divide our politics as they have done, and in some cases still do, in other countries. Authoritarianism has no coherent appeal of the type that could sweep a seriously anti-liberal party to power. Only among some Ukip voters do we see a different set of attitudes, and they tend to be more anti-state than anti-freedom (indeed, I’m sure Nigel Farage would say Ukip is Britain’s one true freedom party.)
My less happy conclusion is that few people apply the principles of liberalism consistently. Most of us hold contingent views, determined by our attitude to the issue, or group of people, in question. Most of us are pro-gay couples but anti-prisoners, so we are happy to grant marriage rights to the first group while denying the vote to the second.
Third, if there is one clear pattern, it is that a great many of us are in favour of what some condemn as “nanny state” attitudes. We see this in relation to the marketing of junk foods, the ban on smoking in public places, National Health Service treatment for people with unhealthy lifestyles—and, to some extent, cannabis. Our overall views on liberalism are generally mixed, but most of us are consistent in wanting clear limits to our freedom to abuse our bodies.
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