UK ‘culture war’ debate: public divide into four groups, not two warring tribes

King’s College London

At least half the public take a more nuanced and variable position

The four sides in the UK's

The four sides in the UK’s “culture war”

Read the research

Half of the UK belong to groups who are either disengaged from debates about “culture war” issues or have comparatively moderate views about them, despite more extreme positions often generating the most public and political attention, a new study has found.

The research reveals the country is made up of four groups of people with distinct positions on issues that are often drawn into the UK’s supposed culture war: Traditionalists (26% of the population), the Disengaged (18%), Moderates (32%) and Progressives (23%).

Despite being the biggest group, Moderates tend to lose out to Traditionalists and Progressives in the national conversation on culture change, with some of those who make up the latter two groups generating most of the noise.

And whether Moderates shift – and in which direction – on relevant high-profile issues could have implications for how political parties use culture war debates to consolidate or expand their supporter base, the researchers say. More careful understanding of, and engagement with, this group should therefore be a key focus.

To identify the different groups within the population, researchers at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, used a technique called latent class analysis, drawing on a major survey conducted by Ipsos MORI.

The four groups in detail

Traditionalists (26% of the population)

  • Oldest of the groups, with most aged 55 or above, and the only group with a male majority (61%).
  • Of the four groups, by far the most patriotic and nostalgic for the country’s past: 79% are proud of their country, 71% agree empire is something to be proud of, and 61% want their country to be the way it used to be.
  • 97% agree political correctness has gone too far (including 76% who strongly agree), and a majority think people are too easily offended.
  • Much more likely than the other groups to believe rights for women and people from ethnic minorities have gone far enough. And 47% think trans rights have gone too far in the UK – around four times the proportion of the group next most likely to feel this way.
  • Only group in which a majority (56%) are opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Disengaged (18%)

  • Highest proportion of women (58%) out of the four groups, with 35- to 54-year-olds making up the biggest share (40%). Also have the joint-lowest share of degree holders (14%).
  • Stand out for their neutrality on politics and Brexit: 44% don’t support any party, and 37% don’t think of themselves as Leavers or Remainers.
  • Distinguished from Moderates by views on the rights of various groups, such as whether equal rights for ethnic minorities have gone far enough, where 75% of the Disengaged say they neither agree nor disagree or don’t know – compared with just 13% of Moderates who say the same.
  • Least inclined of the four groups to take a position on culture war issues. For example, when asked whether the British empire is something to be proud or ashamed of, six in 10 say neither, or that they don’t know – the only group where a majority give this response.

Moderates (32%)

  • Older than Progressives, and the second most highly educated. Also the most politically diverse group.
  • On some issues, they resemble the Progressives: they support the expansion of rights for women and ethnic minorities – albeit less strongly than do Progressives.
  • On others issues their views are closer to those of Traditionalists. For example, they agree political correctness has gone too far.
  • Most likely of the groups to think that trans rights have gone as far as they should go, with 40% holding this view.
  • Majority are proud of the UK, but they tend not to be nostalgic for the past nor very proud of the British empire.
  • Take a middle position between thinking there’s a need to be sensitive to those from different backgrounds and a perception that people are too easily offended.

Progressives (23%)

  • Youngest and most ethnically diverse of the four groups, as well as the most educated, with nearly half holding university degrees.
  • Most likely of the groups to think the expansion of rights for historically less powerful groups – women, ethnic minorities, transgender people – has not gone far enough.
  • 59% are ashamed of the British empire – three times the proportion of the next-most ashamed group – and they tend not to be nostalgic for the country’s past nor strongly patriotic.
  • By far the most likely of the groups to disagree that political correctness has gone too far (61%), as well as most likely to think the way people talk needs to be more sensitive to those from different backgrounds.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“The way the supposed ‘culture war’ is often discussed in the UK gives the impression that the public all fall into one of two warring tribes who have utterly opposed worldviews to the ‘other side’. But this is a misreading of where the public are, driven by our focus on the noisy extremes of the debate. At least half the public take a more nuanced and variable position, or don’t really engage much at all in these debates. The extremes on either side get a lot of attention, but they are too small to form political or social majorities, so the direction the middle groups go next is vital, particularly the largest “Moderate” group. The real task is not to focus on or play to the edges, but to find the mix of messages and actions that bring more of us together.”

Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, said:

“Research like this provides a more sophisticated understanding of what is really going on in the UK’s so-called ‘culture wars’. Britons of all shades of opinion on race relations are united on the right to protest, do not tend to think “no-platforming” people is a good idea, and indeed the majority clearly agrees there is one law for the rich and another for the poor! This analysis shows that while there are two clear progressive and traditionalist groups with opposing values, just as many Britons fall in the middle, with more moderate views or even disengaged from the whole debate.”

Technical details

Ipsos MORI interviewed online a representative sample of 2,834 adults aged 16+ across the United Kingdom between 26 November and 2 December 2020. This data has been collected by Ipsos MORI’s UK KnowledgePanel, an online random probability panel which provides gold standard insights into the UK population, by providing bigger sample sizes via the most rigorous research methods. Data are weighted by age, gender, region, Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, education, ethnicity and number of adults in the household in order to reflect the profile of the UK population. All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error.

Respondents were grouped through latent class analysis using the GSEM suite of commands in Stata v. 16.1. Manifest variables used to identify groups were answers to questions about the rights of different groups of people, the UK and its history, the role of government in promoting values, free speech and political correctness, views on the Black Lives Matter movement and restrictions related to the coronavirus, support for political parties, and Brexit identity. For some variables, in one or more groups there were no respondents in the most extreme categories of agree/disagree style questions. When this was a problem, we collapsed categories, for example, “strongly agree” and “agree” became a single response.

Summary statistics for other variables by group were produced by calculating summary statistics for the whole sample using each observation’s probabilities of group membership as weights.

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