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11 May

Are we progressives forgetting how far we’ve come?

An old game of Scruples taught me not to feel despondent.

By Helen Barnard

Saturday night, time for a family board game. I pull out the old 1984 version of Scruples we played when I was young. In Scruples players draw a card with a dilemma on it and ask another player what they would do in that situation. The dilemmas are supposed to provoke debate, with questions on which reasonable people might be expected to disagree.

First up: “You are smoking at a meeting. Someone is coughing and showing discomfort. Do you finish your cigarette?” The children looked baffled. People smoked at work? Inside?

Then it got more disturbing: 

“You are a high school head teacher. Will you hire a teacher you know is gay?” 
“Your teenage daughter is dating a boy of another colour. Do you encourage her to date boys of her own race?” 
“You are looking for people to share a house. A handicapped person applies. Do you tell him/her the rooms are let?” 

And finally, jaw droppingly: “You suspect your neighbours are abusing their children. Your attempts to discuss it have been rebuffed. Do you notify the authorities?”

For children of the 2000s it is mind blowing that these questions could have seriously been asked. There has been a total turnaround in attitudes across so many aspects of national life. In 1983 only 41 per cent thought it was “acceptable for a homosexual person to be a teacher in a school”, now it’s 83 per cent, says NatCen Social Research. These days 89 per cent of people would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group, according to Ipsos, compared with less than half in the 1980s. By 2017 the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that 83 per cent of people thought of disabled people as “the same as everyone else”. 

The picture isn’t all rosy, of course. For starters, we’ve not attained 100 per cent on any of these statistics. People from ethnic minority groups still have to send in an estimated 60 per cent more applications than a white British person to get a response from an employer. In 2017 Stonewall found that one in five LGBT people had experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexuality or gender identity. Between 2015 and 2018 there were 52 000 disability-motivated hate crimes a year in England and Wales.

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But when we focus only on the battles yet to be won, we risk forgetting just how far we have come. So often, conservatives complain that the left acts as though Britain is a terrible place to be for minorities and the marginalised, as though societal attitudes haven’t come on significantly over the last few decades. That feels like a slight mischaracterisation of a desire among progressives to simply see us do better, and to hold institutions to account. But they have a point: it doesn’t all have to feel quite so dreary. There is the risk we become despondent and forget that our efforts can lead to great leaps in progress.

So, take heart. Cheer up. Chill out with a nice board game. But if it’s an old one I recommend checking the questions before you sit down with the kids. 

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