Universities and the ‘broken society’
For some time now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been talking about what he calls Britain’s ‘broken society’. This theme has been part of his message since 2008 at least. Back then he listed the elements of the broken society as ‘issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime, and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.’ In the wake of the unrest in parts of England he was back to his theme yesterday, this time referring to ‘children without fathers, schools without discipline and communities without control.’ He stressed that his ministers would be told to ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, and that he would in particular instigate ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.
It is, I believe, hugely important for politicians, who when faced with some crisis or other feel under pressure to ‘do something’, to put the scene into an historical perspective. Nothing we experience is ever as new as we think. Britain, or indeed any other country, does not particularly have a more ‘broken society’ now than it did in the past. A quick journey through the pages of a Dickens novel will quickly reveal a far more broken society than we are likely to discover today. Unrest, looting, anarchism, riots did not suddenly emerge, without any historical precedent, in 2011. They have some longevity, and this being so are unlikely to be amenable to a quick political fix in time for a general election cycle.
But if there is an interesting question here, it is how we see, understand, sustain and protect communities; or indeed, how we identify them. This week I have moved into a new home on a new (to me) street in a new town in a new country (Scotland), and I have been struck by the warmth of the welcome from people living several houses away, who I might have imagined would pay little attention to our arrival. There is a community there. Even in the responses to the English riots there were significant elements of community spirit and concern.
I don’t believe that today’s society is ‘broken’, and I am far from sure that it helps to describe it in this way; indeed doing so may reinforce the behaviours that are thought to be symptomatic of ‘brokenness’ Nor, frankly, do I subscribe to what I think is the rather facile suggestion that violent riots, at least in England, are an expression of political resistance to expenditure cutbacks. What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities. There has been some very interesting academic analysis on this – I would mention Benedict Anderson and Robert Bellah – and it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them.
Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed. It is the task of our universities in particular to re-energise this debate and to provide materials for the re-discovery of the community. It is an important task.