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From clickbait to community: social cohesion in Brexit Britain

From clickbait to community: social cohesion in Brexit Britain

In this long read, Madeleine Ward considers how Brexit is impacting social cohesion in communities across the U.K. 10/07/2019

It has now been over three years since the country voted for Brexit (happy anniversary, anyone?) and the group UK in a Changing Europe recently marked the occasion by releasing a Brexit Scorecard to ‘judge the impact of Brexit on our country’. This assessment was made according to four main criteria which largely focused on the economic and political implications of the Referendum decision: economic flourishing, fairness (particularly with regards to wealth distribution), openness to trade, and democratic control. The authors chose these criteria to reflect the ‘key themes and issues’ in the Referendum debate itself, on the basis that ‘generally, both sides argued that the UK should remain an open, outward–looking country; that both economic growth and social cohesion mattered; that we should invest in, and improve, our public services; and that we needed to maintain the UK’s international influence, especially over security matters, while preserving democratic control of our own destiny.’ Quite apart from whether this characterisation of the EU debate is accurate, the results of the study make for a sobering read. Yet despite the authors’ acknowledgement that both sides were concerned for social cohesion, the report excludes any extended consideration of the impact of Brexit at a social level – and particularly, on the relationships and communities which give meaning to our everyday lives. How, then, has Brexit affected community cohesion?

For some, the impact has undeniably been negative. Speaking to participants as part of the Free Churches Commission on the church and social cohesion, we have heard of Eastern European shopkeepers having their businesses vandalised, and BAME participants feeling stigmatized – or even directly challenged by strangers – as a result of the Referendum. Such incidents mustn’t be downplayed. We know that numbers of hate crimes reported to the police have risen steadily in recent years – notably peaking around the Referendum itself. However, assessing the deeper trends underlying these figures is notoriously difficult. After all, while the number of reported hate crimes has risen, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (a randomly–selected and representative sample of 50,000 households) suggests that numbers of people actually identifying themselves as victims of hate crimes has decreased over the last ten years. This implies that the rise in police figures is at least partly due to a shift in the culture of reporting. Similarly, Professor Anthony Heath argued in 2018 that social cohesion had not been substantially corroded even over the last fifty years, when judged quantitatively according to measures like general levels of trust in other people and a sense of national belonging. Heath is far from claiming that Britain is a social utopia – even in 1959, only half of respondents felt their fellow citizens could generally be trusted – but he does conclude that ‘many of Britain’s strengths and weaknesses are long–standing’.

This is consistent with our research, as demonstrated by answers given to one of our interview questions: ‘Is your area moving closer together or further apart?’ So far, just over half of participants have responded that it is doing neither. Of the remaining participants, there has been a roughly even split between ‘closer together’ and ‘further apart’ answers. Only eight participants have mentioned Brexit at all, and two of these participants judge that their communities are actually moving closer together despite Brexit.

Far more often, participants have raised specific, systemic factors as the primary issues impacting their local areas: the sense of being left behind; cultural and language barriers between groups; youth violence; economic deprivation and inequality. In other words, it seems that our actual local experiences are still predominantly shaped by forces that pre–date 2016. These problems are problems – and they aren’t likely to be solved any quicker while the government is distracted by the ongoing Brexit crisis. Nonetheless, local communities have (so far) been pretty resilient under the weight of the political challenge.

And yet, as one of our participants in Middlesbrough reflected, ‘[the high Brexit vote in this area] was a reaction to poverty and the isolation that communities here might feel from… Westminster… I saw people queueing up at polling stations and the strange thing [was] a lot of them were angry, they were coming out to vote and they were angry… I’ve never noticed that before in an election…. I think it was a frustration and they wanted to… lash out.’

To this end, the author David Goodhart has identified a socio–cultural divide in Britain between what he calls ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. Anywheres tend to be university–educated and mobile: their identity is constructed around personal achievement, and is therefore portable. They are comfortable in a wide range of places and situations. They value individual freedom and choice, and are likely to be most inspired by causes which emphasise the universal elements of human experience and dilute the power of the nation state (for example, the importance of observing international human rights legislation). In contrast, ‘Somewheres’ are more strongly communitarian, and root their sense of identity and belonging in attachment to place. They are unlikely to have gone to university, and in a country where higher numbers are degree–educated, they find themselves more and more excluded from the economic and cultural success of the nation. Their core values are characterised by group loyalty, security and the sacred. Goodhart accepts that these groupings exist on a spectrum – he also posits a large group of Inbetweeners, as well as extremes of ‘Global Villagers’ and ‘Hard Authoritarians’ – but essentially presents our current political moment as a ‘Somewhere’ backlash against ‘Anywhere over–reach’.

This model makes sense of a great deal of the mutual incomprehension on both sides of the Brexit divide. However, it is worth noting that, in an increasingly internet–dependent and itinerant society, we all rely less on what is local for our sense of community. ‘Somewheres’ aren’t immune (or even trying to be immune) from this process. The ‘Leave’ identity has been shaped and entrenched by virtual spaces just as much as the ‘Remain’ identity – indeed, notoriously so, through targeted adverts on Facebook. This means that, more than ever, our view of ‘community’ is being filtered through external and ideological lenses. And this doesn’t just give us choices about who we befriend, or what we do in our spare time, but affects how we view our rooted lives too. Consequently, when council leaders and mayors were recently asked by the New Local Government Network to assess the impact of Brexit on their local areas, the proportion identifying a negative impact varied by as much as 44 percentage points based on political affiliation: while 80 percent of Independent respondents thought that the impact of Brexit had been negative, this fell to just 35.4 percent among Conservatives. We are not neutral observers of our own communities.

Comparing this to what we have said about the local picture, it seems that those modes of community–building which are most contested in modern British society – the virtual and ideological ones – are those now being pushed to the fore as the basis of our shared public life.

Where do we go from here? Above all, it is crucial to recognise that local connection is not the preserve of a ‘Somewhere’ tribe. Rather, it can be a grounding and healing influence on us all, insofar as it helps us to focus on our common experiences and the practical challenges we face together, rather than fundamentally opposing worldviews. As one participant reflected, ‘[social cohesion is] about being honest about the world. That it isn’t just my own little bubble, and my own interpretation… [it’s] about providing spaces; helping communities be places where difference doesn’t have to be a barrier to flourishing but is possibly its greatest aid.’

Moreover, the churches offer a model of community–building which encourages exactly this.

How? Most obviously, in a practical sense. For a start, churches provide a huge number of physical meeting spaces. The Near Neighbours scheme to register official ‘Places of Welcome’ (community spaces open at the same time each week, available to everyone, where visitors can find refreshments and a listening ear) is striking for its high uptake among religious buildings: 78% of the current venues are associated with a faith community. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: Theos research in 2014 found that around 10 million adults in England had accessed a church or church–based service in the last 12 months. This could either be informal social space (think mums & toddlers groups, and lunch clubs) or the provision of basic services that can’t be found elsewhere (foodbanks or debt advice centres).

Of course, these services wouldn’t run without people, and churches generate large numbers of volunteers, encouraging grass–roots confidence, moral direction and a sense of hope – over and against politics based on disillusionment and despair. The Cinnamon Trust’s 2016 Faith Action Audit calculated the economic value of the time given by faith groups to their communities to be £3 billion per year. Add to this the paid time of official religious leaders, who are often called upon to convene dialogue between local stakeholders (e.g. police, council, social services) and the community, so keeping communication channels open where they otherwise may close down.

All this means that churches are often connecting with their geographical communities in ways that other organisations struggle to emulate, acting something like ‘capillary level’ of the neighbourhood, and reaching where nobody else can.

But it isn’t just about making a practical contribution: more importantly, the way that churches engage offers a valuable model for healing in the wake of such a divisive public debate. Of course, in the first instance, church–based engagement shows a genuine respect for what is rooted and local: our church–based participants have commonly spoken of their deep care for their neighbourhoods – and of course, the mandate to ‘Love thy neighbour’, means that anybody who is simply present is equally worthy of that care. It therefore shouldn’t (in theory) be filtered through any of the criteria which most of us employ at some level in ordinary life. But this local concern is also framed by a wider vision which draws from and celebrates forms of identity beyond the local, rather than undermining them. Everything that local churches do makes reference to something bigger – whether the broader Church itself, or a constant sense of higher purpose. And critically, this allows for a creative tension between local and universal which cuts through Goodhart’s Anywhere–Somewhere distinction (as Giles Fraser has, in fact, explicitly suggested through reflection on the Church’s dual heritage in Jesus and St Paul). In this sense, churches enable an opt–out of divisive choices between Localist, Nationalist or Globalist. They take seriously all the ways in which human beings are capable of making community, while not losing sight of the grounded and rooted congregation. In other words, they hold in tension exactly that which risks becoming so unbalanced in Brexit Britain.

Our local communities have not fallen apart in the wake of the 2016 Referendum, but our conceptual communities are certainly colliding – and these modes of relationship–building have increasingly been pushed to the fore in our public life. If we want to move forward together in unity, we must rediscover models of communal life which embed us in the local without diminishing the universal. In this regard, we could do worse than to follow the Church’s lead.

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


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 10 July 2019

Brexit, Britain, Churches, Communities, Social Cohesion, Social Media


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