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Poetry not policy: why we need a new language for social cohesion post–Brexit

Poetry not policy: why we need a new language for social cohesion post–Brexit

Madeleine Ward makes a case for the sacred importance of social cohesion in post–Brexit Britain. 27.03.2019

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Perhaps we should have realised that there was a lack of conceptual clarity – still less, a shared vision – regarding Brexit when we were told that the UK would negotiate a “bespoke” deal with the European Union. It now seems this was code for “none of the existing options will work”, and our elected leaders have (justifiably) faced fierce criticism for their failure to reach agreement on even the most basic features of our future relationship with our closest neighbours.

However, we mustn’t let ourselves off the hook too easily either. As a nation, we have arguably made even less progress on the civil challenge presented by Brexit than our politicians have on the political situation.

This challenge can be understood fundamentally as a question of what sort of communities we want to live in. What is Britain’s place in the international community? What does it mean to be part of the national “British” community? And at a local level, who is my neighbour? The success of the Leave campaign signalled a call for change on every point. Yet Remain voters have largely responded to this call with incredulity, and Brexit voters themselves have been denounced for a lack of planning for (or even interest in) the economic and legislative adjustments that the desired changes might require. Language of betrayal is invoked on both sides. People get angry. The country remains divided. And therefore, as a society, we have failed to identify common ground on the issues at the heart of the debate.

After all, how easy it is to accuse somebody of “betrayal”. It successfully captures the sense of helplessness and anger felt on both sides. It is emotional language. It appeals to our deepest vulnerabilities. It is designed to hurt.

In contrast, we seem to lack (or have lost) similarly emotive language needed to describe and inspire the necessary solutions.

I know this because, as part of one of our ongoing research projects, Theos researchers have been asking people what they understand by the term “social cohesion”. Often, the question is met first with a sense of uncertainty and confusion – or perhaps an eye roll. After all, isn’t that council–speak? However, when people start to explore what this slippery resource actually means to them, it quickly becomes clear how vital it is:

“I think I would want to say there’s something about having a passion for family, not just your own family, but about the church family and the community’s family… and even beyond. It is that idea of believing that we’re family.”

“I think it’s the ability of a place to unite people.”

“It can’t just stop at meeting just the needs of [one] group of people. It has to be transferred to the wider aspect. People may not share the same faith as we do, but they are a part of us all.”

“It’s a measure of the quality of relationships within a given community… whether people see their neighbours as friends, that sort of thing. And the degree to which we’re not just tolerant but embracing, so engaging and actively inclusive.

These sentiments grasp at the very meaning of what it means to be part of a society: a sense of common interest with strangers that we will never meet, and of familial loyalty towards those outside our immediate family. In this sense, they point to what has the power to unite us in an increasingly pluralistic and international world, and therefore cut to the critical questions at the heart of the Referendum. What sort of communities do we want to live in? Certainly, any community that finds itself without “social cohesion” will find itself unable to tackle any of the problems it faces – or to enact the solutions it chooses. And of course, this is what people fear the most: we have heard time and again during the past two years that people feel a loss of control, less in common with their neighbours, and a sense of British (or European) identity under threat.

It should therefore be a cause for concern that the term “social cohesion”, describing a quality of sacred importance, is so often met with confusion and eye–rolling. What we yearn for more than anything is understood as the language of policy rather than the language of poetry, of returns on government investment rather than the joy of relationship. If we want to move forward together, we must rediscover common language to describe the kind of communities we want to live in. This is necessary, whether we leave the EU or not.

All quotations featured in this blog were used with the permission of our research participants.

Image by Maisei Raman under a Shutterstock licence.

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 27 March 2019

Brexit, Britain, Communities, Democracy, Society


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