The sickening homophobic attack on a female gay couple on a night bus in Camden brought to mind the findings of a study published a year ago comparing the views and attitudes of Londoners with those of other people across Britain. Conducted by NatCen Social Research for Trust for London, it included an exploration of social liberalism. The capital has long been seen as a liberal kind of place – broad-minded, comfortable with difference and, for some, a place of escape from social conservatism. Yet the study’s authors concluded:
Analysis of social liberalism among Londoners revealed something of a paradox. On some issues, Londoners expressed more liberal views compared with those in other regions, while in others they expressed a more socially conservative stance.
Londoners’ relative conservatism concerns sex and sexuality, the study found. For example, although 73 per cent of us believe that pre-marital sex is rarely or never wrong, people in Scotland, the North and South of England and (in particular) Wales, were far more liberal on the issue, scoring between 82 and 93 per cent).
And what about homosexuality? The study found that 67 per cent of Londoners think it is rarely or never wrong, which again was a lower proportion than in the other places looked at. The North of England was only slightly more liberal than London with 69 per cent thinking homosexuality rarely or never wrong, but Wales (74 per cent), Scotland (78 per cent) and the South of England (80 per cent) were significantly more liberal.
These responses to homosexuality by Londoners were in spite of the fact that London contains the highest proportion of people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The reason for this apparent inconsistency is religion. When religious affiliation was taken into account, the differences between London and the two other English regions, Scotland and Wales pretty much vanished. The same was true of attitudes to pre-marital sex, suggesting, as the study’s authors put it, that religious differences are at work in driving different views on pre-marital sex and homosexuality.
Another part of the study examined liberal and authoritarian stances on issues such as the death penalty, censorship of films and magazines and “respect for traditional British values”. On this scale, Londoners were the most liberal of the groups studied (20 per cent), though more of us were authoritarian (33 per cent). Londoners were found to have shifted more towards holding socially liberal views in the past 15 years than people elsewhere, along with Scots. Even so, liberal Londoners might be surprised at how illiberal many of our fellow Londoners are. And meanwhile recorded incidents of homophobic hate crime in London have risen sharply since 2014.
Five people have been arrested in connection with the attack on the two women on the bus, four of them aged under 18. No further details have been released, so we must wait until any charges are pressed and any guilty verdicts returned before drawing too many conclusions about exactly what prompted this chilling episode, about its perpetrators and about its wider significance. But what can, perhaps, be stated is that London’s reputation as a liberal city and a gay-friendly city is something to be proud of, something to be protected and something that cannot be taken for granted.
The card company Moonpig has set up a fundraising page for the couple to help them get back on their feet. Donate to it here. Photo from the NatCen report.