Forgive Us Our Debts
This report examines personal, corporate, and public debt in the UK within a moral framework. (2019)
Ben Ryan asks how should we conceptualise the idea of ‘Pride’ in discussions of British public life. 04/02/2019
As we’ve been conducting research on social cohesion, one term in particular seems to keep arising in interviews; pride. Pride, it seems to me is one of the most constantly overlooked (or even sneered at) issues in British public life, and an issue of immense importance in thinking about community cohesion and resilience.
Pride is a word often used, but harder to define. I am coming to think of it as a phenomenon with a thin end which is something like affection and interest (a warm glow that comes from seeing the local football team doing well in the FA cup perhaps) and a thick end which is more like family love; an unconditional love and form of belonging which is borderline existential. At the thick end local identity is a form of belonging which sees a place not as an accident of birth, or even a logical choice to be made, but as something foundational to personal identity. This is the form of belonging which David Goodhart has defined as making someone a somewhere; someone whose identity is fundamentally rooted in a sense of place.
What’s interesting is that this local pride, unlike, say pride in a job well done, doesn’t seem particularly based on any accomplishment or status. Maybe it was once. Middlesbrough and Bolton (two of our case studies where pride was a term used again and again) were once two vertebrae in the backbone of the industrial revolution that made Britain a global superpower. Their respective town halls are impressive Victorian sandstone monuments to an era in which northern industry powered the biggest empire the world had ever seen. Of course, that’s no longer the case. Both have suffered acutely from post–industrial decline and, more recently, have borne the brunt of the austerity cuts. Today, instead of powering a global empire, such towns have been described as leaving London, in economic terms, “shackled to a corpse”.
If that seems a provocatively bleak and depressing metaphor, it should nevertheless be noted that high levels of local pride do, in fact, often seem to be correlated negatively to economic flourishing. Londoners are, statistically, the people least proud of where they live (and the least likely to be proud to be English). There’s something wonderfully symbolic about London Pride (the beer) having just been sold to a Japanese multinational. Economic success bears little correlation to pride in local belonging.
Pride, instead of reflecting a town’s economic thriving, has become much more important as a resilience tool. It can be employed to defend a community from abject hopelessness in the face of an overwhelming list of economic and social challenges. Without that thick conception of pride – an unconditional, familial sort of love of place despite its circumstances, and a willingness to fight for it, it is difficult to see how many communities could continue to survive at all. It is the most constantly overlooked of community assets; the very notion that anyone should actually care. If no one cares whether a struggling place lives or dies, then it is already doomed. Pride in that sense is the bulwark against despair and decline.
This shouldn’t surprise us; after all pride in many other settings is a term used in exactly the same way. The whole point of (LGBT) Pride Festivals, of the Black Pride movement is that the participants celebrate and take pride in an identity as a means of building resilience against a dominant culture in which that identity is marginalised, despised or disparaged. This is not a novel observation. In his much–celebrated book Hillbilly Elegy on the struggles of white Appalachian working class families in the American rust belt J.D Vance notes the same phenomenon. Faced with a dire situation this class is the most fiercely proud of their local area and most consistently patriotic. They have to be – it is what they have as an asset to protect themselves.
As Vance also notes, however, pride can be a double–edged sword. While it fosters resilience, it can also paralyze efforts at change. If your fundamental identity is tied up with a place, then criticism of that place bites that much deeper. When resilience is tied up in local pride criticism and change needs to be managed much more carefully, because if you’re too critical of a place you can undermine pride and the whole resilience armour starts to crack. Certainly, I’ve heard hints of that in interviews. A good number of interviewees when asked about Middlesbrough and Bolton began their remarks by criticising the public perception of their town. The way other people talk about the town clearly stings the pride of locals. A siege mentality (us against them) can help foster resilience. It can also make it harder to confront the social problems that really do exist. Imposed top–down solutions from outside, however well meaning, can seem like just another patronising condescension from outside. Helplessness can become endemic when you can’t make changes without undermining pride.
So, what’s the solution? How do you build on the valuable resilience fostered by local pride while still allowing for a model of reform and criticism to help improve real social problems? The most compelling solutions are the ones we are seeing from some of the most inspiring churches we’ve encountered in our research. It comes from churches and other civil society bodies working locally and building the agency of local people to confront the challenges around them. By allowing people the dignity and agency to identify challenges in their own communities you let them mobilize local pride towards a constructive end, without imposing criticisms from outside. There’s nothing very radical in that as a vision. Then again there doesn’t have to be; the point is almost not what you do, but how you do it. Using pride as a community asset to be exploited taps into the richest source of energy in many local communities. Undermining it could destroy them.
Image by by pauljrobinson available under a Shutterstock licence.
Ben Ryan was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 1 February 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.