Steve Richards: Our need to belong is powerful – and political

These days of rain-soaked celebration show there is a hunger for community and association

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The Independent Online

How unusual it it to see so many people trying to enjoy themselves at the same time. There are people on boats, people watching people on boats, street parties, garden parties, a rock concert, people watching big screens of the rock concert. For four days in the era of Twitter and Facebook, people are gathering together in real places for a common cause.

I find the specific common cause baffling. What exactly are they celebrating as they wave their flags in the grey, cold rain? They know little about the woman who is the centre of all attention. She has never uttered an interesting word in public. I am up for irrational idolatry and recently spent a few days in New York looking out for Woody Allen and visiting the Dakota apartments where John Lennon lived. At least these stars have or had talents that make them interesting. The celebration of a dysfunctional family which survives on the basis of the hereditary principle is an extreme example of irrational worship, and is slightly disturbing.

What is not disturbing about these days of rain-soaked celebration is the evident hunger for community and association. This has the potential to go somewhere much more exciting. I observe and share the same hunger in football supporters, the other modern irrational obsession. When I talk about Spurs to friends, I talk about "we" when referring to the distant multi-millionaires who play fleetingly for the team before going on elsewhere for even more money. In our little office at Westminster, The Independent's Political Editor and I have occasionally embraced and more often shared mutual gloom as we suffer the twists and turns of Spurs. Hopefully, we have more common interests than an erratic football team, but there is a bond formed from mutual support, and we all need such ties. Already, I look forward to the England football team's early exit from the European Championship so as a country we can all moan together, united in our joyful gloom.

But, of course. this is a poor substitute for real contact. The artificial unity tries to meet the burning appetite for community as there seems to be so few other options. Not so long ago, the church, political parties, social clubs helped to bring people together. Workplaces were also communities, the mining villages, the shipyards and the rest. I am not romanticising the often horrendous working lives in these places. Often the horror formed part of the bond that gave these areas a vibrancy and sense of intense belonging.

Now political parties are dying before our eyes. Instead, political contact can take place anywhere around the world on Twitter. I was up a mountain in Croatia when Jeremy Hunt faced the Leveson Inquiry last week. Via Twitter, I could easily keep in touch without speaking to a single human being, let alone meeting one. Meanwhile, few go to church and work is increasingly atomised. The revolution in the media is typical. Once journalists were gathered together on Fleet Street. Now they are scattered in a thousand different locations. The columnists on these pages are brought together in print or on the internet but rarely meet. My actual community is the political one; journalists and politicians who work at Westminster. I am grateful for it. We all need to be part of something real and yet it is getting harder to feel any real association outside Twitter.

Nonetheless, there are signs that people are trying to get out and meet for a purpose beyond a silent Queen or distant footballers. Book festivals are packed. At Hay this week, thousands have travelled long distances to meet authors and other readers. They must find it more satisfying than tweeting their latest thoughts on a book. People who come to my live shows about politics tell me they like to get out for actual events rather than just watch virtual ones. The journalist and writer, Simon Jenkins, has noted a post-Twitter era.

The hunger has always been evident. In the late 1980s when Margaret Thatcher suggested there was no such thing as society, Neal Ascherson wrote a column noting the rise of local drama societies and other forms of association. David Cameron's Big Society recognised this yearning. Steve Hilton used to rave about a big vegetable co-operative he saw in the Bronx, run with dedicated expertise by the local community. The problem with his vision is that too many in the Coalition saw it as an alternative to the state, when a well-resourced and active state must complement vibrant local communities.

Still, voluntarism flourishes creatively in spite of the disappearance of the Big Society. Take the University of the Third Age, where classes are packed with people who no longer work, taught by those no longer working, too. They are engaged communities. We need more of them. Flag waving in the rain is no substitute for the real thing.

Steve Richards' next live politics show is at Kings Place on 18 June with guest, Alastair Campbell. Tickets are available on the Kings Place website /