Last week I asked why South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have done so much better than the UK at resisting the impact of Covid on their populations. Why do their governments have such different relationships with their peoples – and most importantly what can we learn from this?
I hope I made it clear that some of their very important long-term cultural relationships – a Confucianism in which actions for collective and individual good are interwoven (looking after the collective through your individual actions being the best way to look after yourself) to fight the pandemic – can’t just be lifted from one society to another.
But the social solidarity that Confucianism creates can be. Strong social solidarity by which people recognise how individual actions play a role in creating a collective and therefore have a responsibility for that – would be a better basis for facing a pandemic than a society characterised by a strong belief that the prime social goal is for everyone to act solely out of self-interest.
One way of judging how far we are from this working in the pandemic would be to recognise how odd it would be for the Government to say to our population – “it is un English not to wear a mask”, but why is this? In a pandemic wearing a mask is a good thing, but an appeal to Englishness is more likely to be to the individual’s right to be different and not wear a mask.
In looking at social solidarity in the UK, I want initially to explore two difficult issues about the experience of social solidarity for the centre left and the left.
Most of us think that a strong social solidarity would characterise the society that we would like to live in – and that is true.
I grew up in 1950s South-East London – a time characterised by strong social solidarity. The Second World War (when we were all one) had taken place only yesterday. My school days were not just characterised by pre-Thatcher milk breaks but also, in my first few years, free orange juice for the Vitamin C. It was true that culturally “We were all in it together” and there were these strong new welfare state institutions to help build solidarity in practice.
But one thing that made that social solidarity work so powerfully was that there wasn’t much “difference” within that social. I met no black or minority ethnic people until I left the place where I grew up to go to university. 1950s South-East London was not a good time or place to be gay. The social solidarity we experienced had been partially formed by a resistance to ‘other’. And that other was not a part of who we were. Social solidarity was made much easier by our limited cultural differences.
It was the only world I knew but growing up I found it restrictive and was very happy to get away from it.
Nowadays I live just 5 miles from where I grew up and even just a glance out of the window demonstrates it has become a very different world of diversity. I am so much happier in this world – but the strong social solidarity that was built around similarity is not there. This is emphatically NOT to say that social solidarity cannot be built around diversity – it can be. But let’s beware of one that is built around a restrictive view of who we are.
As I commented last week – Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea are nations that have been formed through long and bitter wars that have taken place in their streets. Their social solidarity is strengthened by a compelling appeal to nationhood that their national population can gather round. Their we that are ‘in it together’ is a nation forged by war.
What the left and centre left need to come to terms with is the power of nationhood in constructing social solidarity. For the UK the Second World War was a war against fascism but it was also a war for nationhood. Every day the appeal to country and flag was a part of what built that social solidarity that meant so much after the war. Just read how Beveridge argued for the welfare state during the war.
And to make this point in an even stronger way, the national social solidarity that followed World War 2 created national institutions of which the country is still proud. One of the reasons the NHS matters so much to Britain is that first word, national. Indeed most would recognise the rolethe NHS plays in defining who we are as a nation. When it plays that role (and next week I will explore this further) it does so as an appeal to our nation.
This doesn’t mean that ALL nationalism is right. It isn’t. But it does mean that an appeal to a stronger social solidarity in a society will have to have some relationship with nationalism.
Those of us arguing for recognition of how much the Windrush generation have given to Britain – wrap that contribution in the notion of Britain as a nation. They came on a British passport and have been treated badly by a British Home Office. They have contributed to our nation in so many ways that they are now a big and important part of us. The solidarity they helped to create through their hard work has been a national solidarity.
If we want to build better social solidarity then the first thing we need to recognise is that it is very hard work. What we have learnt from the Prime Minister in the last year is that a threadbare appeal to British exceptionalism without the hard work of actually creating it just doesn’t work. The sense of ‘us’ he has promoted – means less in November than it did in February because he really has not worked hard to demonstrate that we are all in this together.
Mentioning it now and then doesn’t do it – especially when most of your actions show your disdain for it. Do not be careless with it.
We have learnt that if you want to create social solidarity around the experience of Britishness it’s not a good idea to slag off the Scots.
And if you want to include Northern Ireland, don’t agree with the EU to have a border along the Irish Sea.
If you mean your social solidarity to be created around England don’t say Britain. And if you mean leavers in England, don’t say England.
Do not try and consign to oblivion the 48% of the population who voted to remain in the EU. We have already learnt that demonising nearly half of the population as being ‘other’ doesn’t create solidarity.
Don’t rip up the rules of fairness upon which you want to base solidarity by giving away millions in opaque and hidden contracts to your chums.
Social solidarity can only be created by hard, and above all consistent, work.
The NHS already plays a role in this but next week we’ll explore how it can play a bigger one.