Civilizing society?

Can a government change people’s minds by passing laws? Probably not, or at least, it’s not as simple as that.


In the 1960s Roy Jenkins introduced a range of new laws to build what he called “a civilized society”. These included the effective abolition of capital punishment, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the legalisation of abortion.

These ideas seem commonplace now but this was not always the case.

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Although many people support women’s right to have an abortion in some circumstances, the idea that a woman has the right to chose whether or not to have an abortion was not supported by most people at end of the 1980s.

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Despite same sex relationships being decriminalised in the 1960s as late as 1990 most people in the UK thought same sex relationships were “always wrong”.

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Finally, a substantial majority of people continued to support the use of the death penalty well into the 1990s.


Obviously, the government can have an impact on public opinion. In fact, the decision by successive governments to create more university spaces is probably one of the main drivers behind the increasingly liberal view many now take on these issues.

Equally obviously, this is not an argument that government’s should never do unpopular things. I am certainly very grateful that Jenkins passed the laws that he did, even if they didn’t change many people’s minds. However, it does seem that, if they did change people’s minds, it took a generation to do so.

Those thinking about how we can change public opinion should perhaps bear this in mind.

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