Study shows ‘socially Scandinavian’ UK is more liberal than France

Home Secretary Suella Braverman on ICHR rules and policies

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A recent survey has found people in the UK to be some of the most socially liberal in the world. Attitudes in the country have slipped leftward significantly over the past four decades, particularly so in recent years. On a range of issues, the UK is closer to Scandinavia than it is to the US.

With a record 45,755 people crossing the Channel in small boats last year, the problem of illegal immigration is a top priority for Rishi Sunak’s Government.

On Tuesday, Home Secretary Suella Braverman brought the Illegal Migration Bill before Parliament – outlining her plan to block those crossing the UK border unlawfully from claiming asylum or ever returning to the country after being deported.

In some quarters, the legislation has drawn criticism for reflecting poorly on the country’s empathy and generosity towards those less fortunate. However, a recent survey found the UK to be among the most accepting nations in the world.

According to the 2022 World Values Survey carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the attitudes of Brits on a range of social issues from immigration to homosexuality and abortion have shifted dramatically.


The latest Home Office data show more people than ever settled in the UK long-term in 2022 – with net migration topping 500,000 for the first time.

Most people do not appear to think this is a problem. Of the 17 peer countries surveyed, people in the UK were found to be the least likely to say the Government should impose strict immigration laws.

Just 31 percent of respondents held a negative attitude towards new arrivals. The two next-most welcoming countries, Germany and Canada, reported rates of 35 percent and 39 percent respectively. 

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the institute that published the 2022 World Values Survey, said: “It was unthinkable a decade ago that the UK would top any international league table for positive views of immigration.

“Some of the drivers of this extraordinary shift are clear in how we see the contribution of immigrants to our economy and services – we’re now the least likely to think immigration increases unemployment, and second from top in thinking that immigrants fill important job vacancies.”

READ MORE: The five big problems facing Rishi Sunak’s small boat plan


According to the results of Census 2021 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 1.5 percent of the British population openly identifies as gay or lesbian – around 748,000 people.

In 1981, just 12 percent of public thought homosexuality was justifiable. This figure has soared to two-thirds (66 percent) today. Half of this perception change has occurred in just the past few years – in 2009, only 33 percent thought being gay was acceptable.

Of the 20-odd nations assessed on this metric, only three were more open towards homosexuality than the UK – Sweden (81 percent), Norway (76 percent) and Germany (67 percent). 

Only one Briton in ten thought having casual sex was justifiable in 1999 – relative to 42 percent in 2022. This quadrupling means the UK now looks more favourably on hookup culture than France (26 percent), and is the fourth-most accepting of all. 

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Divorce and abortion

In England and Wales, the divorce rate peaked around 2004 when 13 marriages broke down per 1,000. After over a decade of decline, in 2018 the numbers picked up once more, with the rate just under 10 in 2021.

This chimes with the taboos around divorce evaporating over the past 40 years. Between 1981 and 2022, the proportion of Britons claiming divorce was justifiable rose from 18 percent to 64 percent.

Only Sweden (79 percent) and Norway (66 percent) were found to be more accepting of the act, while the UK was far above other Western countries such as the US (38 percent) and Italy (40 percent).

The share of the British public supportive of abortion rights more than tripled since 1981 – going from 14 percent to 48 percent last year. The UK is once again among the top five in this regard, with only Sweden (74 percent) and Norway (62 percent) distantly ahead.

Socially Scandinavian?

Commenting on the 2022 World Value Survey’s findings, Mr Duffy said: “It’s easy to lose sight of just how much more liberal the UK has become over a relatively short period of time, and how liberal we are relative to many other nations. What were once pressing moral concerns – things like homosexuality, divorce and casual sex – have become simple facts of life for much of the public, and we now rank as one of the most accepting countries internationally.

“This mostly isn’t just driven by younger generations replacing older generations. All generations have changed their views significantly, although the oldest pre-war cohort now often stands out as quite different, and on some issues, like casual sex, there is a clear generational hierarchy, with the youngest much more accepting.”

However, there is one issue in particular where British values lean more conservative. One in five people in the UK (21 percent) believe that the death penalty is justifiable – more than do in Greece (four percent), Italy (six percent), Germany (seven percent), Sweden (eight percent), Norway (percent) and Spain (17 percent). 

The UK is somewhat closer to its transatlantic counterpart on capital punishment – where 30 percent of US citizens believe it acceptable – but attitudes are liberalising here also, as back in 2009 a third of Brits (32 percent) thought it right.

Mr Duffy claimed this issue was “much more related to political identities, with Conservative voters much more supportive of capital punishment than Labour voters” and that this explained why political debate continues to rage on the subject.

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