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Has there been a decline in values in British Society?

Discussion of social evils on a theme of 'a decline of values' which argues that discussing the problem and its causes is the first step towards making things better.

Written by:
Anthony Browne
Date published:


The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern ‘social evils’ on the theme of ‘a decline in values’. Anthony Browne argues that, in the face of an unprecedented and unsettling decline in values, discussing the problem and its causes is the first step towards making things better.

Key points

  • Our social values have changed rapidly. Things that caused outrage a generation ago are now celebrated, such as homosexuality and same-sex marriage. But Britons now have a widespread sense of a decline in morals or values.
  • Panics about moral decline are experienced in every generation and most of them are shown to be ill-founded in the long-run.
  • It seems that in almost all measurable ways (such as income and health) life is better now for Britons than it has ever been. Compared to one, two or three hundred years ago, our values too are almost incomparably better, with an increase in tolerance and fairness.
  • There have been many moral improvements since the 1950s but there have also been declines. Family breakdowns, drug use, alcohol abuse, welfare dependency have all unequivocally increased in the last couple of decades, as has violent crime. A decline in social capital – the glue that binds society together – is also evident.
  • Why there has been such a change is hard to determine, as changes in values often trail social changes, which are themselves driven by technological and economic changes. There is no single underlying and overwhelming cause but a whole barrage of smaller causes.
  • Multiculturalism – a profusion of beliefs – tempered with moral relativism has been a major contributing factor, causing a clash of values.
  • A second major factor in moral decline has been the decline of the family. The consequences of this – in terms of poverty, educational underachievement, and anti-social behaviour – are well known.
  • A third major factor is the decline of individual responsibility, due to the growth of the rights-based culture and the inexorable growth of the state into every aspect of our life.
  • Technology too has done its part in promoting individualism, eroding conversation and shared experiences.