Are we really living in a broken society? When we wrote The Future of Community: Reports of a death greatly exaggerated, we came to a very different conclusion. As one promotional blurb put it, communities are “alive and well despite the government’s best efforts”. We were suspicious of the motives of those who tell us our communities are broken and that everything is getting worse. As we tried to get across in the book, this is more an expression of the political class’s own sense of dislocation from society than an accurate reflection of real world problems. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems – only that we’re wasting time on the wrong ones.
Two recent government-sponsored studies – Sources of Resentment and Perceptions of Ethnic Minorities Among Poor White People in England, and Aspiration and Attainment in Deprived Communities – are a case in point. They concluded more or less the same thing: that poor white people are ignorant, feckless and need to get out more. Needless to say, these findings were not supported by the research itself. Far from resenting minorities, race and immigration were only considered a “serious issue” by a handful of respondents in Milton Keynes. In that town’s defence it was also only here that “the vestiges of the informal social control exerted by peer pressure” was found. “The very tightly knit white communities,” admitted the researchers, “appear to self-police, and ASB [antisocial behaviour] is less of a problem”.
But instead of celebrating this shining example of community cohesion both reports preferred to dwell on the dark side of “tight knit” communities. Allegedly hostile to outsiders, their knuckle-dragging inhabitants were unlikely to venture further than the end of their own street, far less get a job. In truth, the “us and them” attitude was directed not so much at minority neighbours, but at the authorities themselves, and the lack of inspiration hardly surprising given the lack of “new opportunities” promised in the subsequent white paper. Reprimanding interviewees for confusing assimilation with integration, the researchers forgot to ask “assimilation to what?” Repeatedly, people described feeling abandoned, betrayed and disempowered by the powers that be. They had nothing against “community”, they just didn’t want it imposed from on high, as one interviewee pointedly said.
People’s sense of unfairness (best expressed by hostility to the censorious tenets of political correctness) emanated less from local factors or petty prejudice – as the researchers claimed – than from a legitimate sense of injustice and an underlying disconnect with public life. As one respondent barked, “England hasn’t got a backbone” anymore. The failing confidence, ambition and “morale” reported in both studies were only a part of the problem – or rather the symptoms of a much wider problem. Namely, a pervasive mood of social pessimism and a political class consumed by a crisis of leadership.
Society isn’t broken but our sense that we can change things for the better is. And this can only be mended by politicians rediscovering a sense of purpose (and genuinely “inspiring communities“) and by ordinary people challenging the official contempt in which they are held.