When (if ever) did Britain become a ‘permissive society’? Were the ‘cultural revolution’ confined to the young, the middle class and the metropolitan? These questions have been a matter of debate within academic and popular circles ever since the 1960s, but remain fundamentally unresolved due to the source materials deployed. Those who identify a ‘cultural revolution’ largely base their arguments on canonical cultural artefacts of the period (music, films, writings, fashions). Revisionists such as Dominic Sandbrook either point to a series of other cultural artefacts that provide a more conservative view of the sixties or else contrast a minority permissive ‘culture’ with a broader ‘society’ displaying stronger continuities with the earlier twentieth century.
This paper addresses these issues by examining the attitudes and beliefs exhibited by representative samples of the British population in opinion polls. Drawing upon polls conducted by Gallup, MORI and the BBC Audience Research Unit covering the period from 1945 to 1990, it argues that public attitudes towards permissiveness (broadly defined as a libertarian stance towards social and cultural norms) varied widely from issue to issue and across different sections of the population. There was a shift towards more acceptance of individual self-governance, particularly regarding heterosexual sexuality and relationships. Yet most people were still not prepared to sanction behaviours which they perceived to disrupt the stability of society. What united such disparate issues as pornography, illicit drug-taking, unregulated immigration, murder in the absence of capital punishment and male homosexuality with the advent of HIV/AIDS was the perceived damage caused by individual behaviour on others. Even when critical of permissive change, the majority did perceive such change as having taken place. In that sense, opinion polls suggest that people in postwar Britain tended to believe that they belonged to a ‘permissive society’ that they opposed in many crucial respects.