Saturday, June 27, 2009

Does Parliament Lead Or Follow Public Opinion?

Benjamin Disraeli once said something along the lines of "I am their leader, I must follow them". This seems more likely than the idea that the public follows the lead of the political class.

Oliver Kamm writes about a survey showing increased public acceptance of homosexuality:
Acts of Parliament turned out to be important in changing public attitudes. Given that Labour is shortly to lose office in a big way, it's worth noting what the Government has done to eradicate discrimination against homosexuals.
I don't think it is true that Acts of Parliament have been important in changing public attitudes because the exact same trends have occurred in every other Western country in the last 30 years. The World Values Survey asks the question " Is Homosexuality justifiable" and the numbers who think it is never justified have fallen steadily in every comparable country to Great Britain over that time scale (except Italy):

So unless the same processes have occured in all countries it looks to me more as though Acts of Parliament have been as a result of changes in underlying public opinion and not vice versa.

As Disraeli said

1 comment:

Laban said...

It's not an either-or question when it comes to legislation vs public attitudes. The one reflects and reacts upon the other. Sometimes Parliament leads (as in legalising homosexuality), sometimes it follows (the pathetic attempts to show themselves as 'tough on crime' while not actually doing owt about it).

The attitudes of most Brits at the time of legalisation in 1967 ranged from 'lock them all up' or worse, to 'there are poor unfortunates on whom we should have compassion' - and those last were the liberals, the ones who voted for legalisation. Following legalisation and 30 years of the cultural revolution, the speeches made in Parliament by the supporters of legalisation would probably see them arrested for hate speech today !

As I said about a different subject :

The two things - attidudes to criminals and their punishment - react on and reinforce (or weaken) each other.

Take Saudi Arabia, where murder is punished by beheading and robbery by amputation. Were we to introduce such punishments to the UK, crime would fall, but not to anywhere near Saudi levels. The existence of such draconian punishment is a reflection of a culture that has no time for thieves and murderers. It's the culture that makes the crime rate low - the punishment reflects and reinforces the culture.