Both the EU referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have led to the increasingly popular theory that political divides are no longer drawn along economic lines, but are instead predominantly based on people’s social attitudes.
Those with broadly socially liberal views, including being positive about immigration, globalisation, and increased minority and gender rights on one side, and those with broadly socially conservative views on the other. However, an optimists view should be that, while this may be the case in the short term, it seems unlikely that this divide can hold in the more distant future, as social attitudes, in the UK at least, become increasingly homogenous.
Judging by the 2017 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, public attitudes are moving in a decisively socially liberal direction. As an example, the socially conservative view that a man’s job is to earn money while a woman’s job is to look after the home and family is now held by only eight per cent of the population, compared to 48% in the mid-1980s.
Similarly, the BSA report for the year before showed that attitudes towards same-sex marriage are becoming increasingly positive. Where divisions do arise on these subjects, they tend to be based on either age or education, with younger, more educated people more likely to hold the more socially liberal view. As the percentage of the population with a degree continues to increase, combined with the inevitabilities of time, it seems likely that differences over social issues will only continue to fade, and social liberalism will decisively win out over social conservatism.
Political parties will need to wake up to this. What has changed over recent years is that voters now appear to consider social issues as much as economic ones when casting their vote. Parties that hope to cater to a voter’s economic values but not their social ones will likely struggle. As UK voters become increasingly socially liberal, we should expect all major parties to embrace social liberal values.
It, therefore, seems likely that, with the debate over social values decided, in the future political discourse will return to a debate over economics and the role of the state. While social liberalism seems destined to win out over social conservatism, the same cannot be said about economic liberalism in its battle with statism. Indeed, in the UK economic liberalism appears to be on the back foot, as both major parties continue to shift away from the invisible hand of the market, towards the dead hand of the state.
An optimistic future for UK politics would likely see a socially liberal, statist party (a position already occupied by Labour), compete with a socially and economically liberal party.
Which party fills the latter role is up for grabs, with both the Liberal Democrats (very liberal on social issues, but much less so on economic ones) and the Tories (increasingly conservative on both) competing against one another.
While the Conservatives have the advantage in terms of size, their socially conservative membership holds them back. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, may be smaller, but they appear more open to the idea of a renewed vision and purpose. Whichever party moves first has the potential to reap significant electoral rewards.