Defining the new Jerusalem

Tony Blair advocates the notion of community, but does such a thing continue to exist in this country? For Paul Vallely, a whistle-stop tour of Britain highlighted a hundred small ways in which the communal spirit still thrives
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The Independent Online
It was Tony Blair who started me off. It was all that banging on about community. For the past decade it has been a key component in his political vocabulary, but did the word, I wondered, have any real meaning? I decided to find out by touring Britain for a month to hunt it down.

The British, of course, cloak such abstractions with mild eccentricity. From the outset it was pure This England. Virtually the first notice I saw when I alighted from the train out of London said: "Pram Race: Rule No 1. One member of the team must remain in the pram at all times." The beautifully batty was with me all the way up the West coast and down the East. But had the bonds of community been irrevocably weakened by the changes of recent decades? Would I be able to find it anywhere?

"The importance of the notion of community," Mr Blair had said, "is that it defines the relationship not only between us as individuals but between people and the society in which they live, one that is based on responsibilities as well as rights..."

The Prime Minister has taken care never to define his new Jerusalem. The representative of the old one, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has had a stab. Community, he reckons, is "any voluntary organisation of people larger than the individual and smaller than the state." That would include churches, trade unions, charities, pressure groups, Rotary clubs, residents' associations, parent-teacher committees, and tennis clubs - all the countless little platoons which Edmund Burke spoke about as making up British society. It is what the political philosophers call civil society.

Yet that is too broad. Community is about people. It is characterised by face-to-face contact. In a community, everyone is known as an individual. I worked that out only after I arrived at my first destination, Cornwall, where I sought out those activists who want home rule for the Cornish duchy.

My intention was to examine whether community could be found in nationhood. But it was swiftly evident that the nation was too big a concept to generate the qualities we look for in community, even when it was as small a nation as the Cornish - which was why its nationalists so often had recourse to history and heritage to staunch their self-definition.

In any case, was I making the mistake of seeing community as synonymous with place? There were, I discovered, places where that still was true. Stanley Ellis of the Yorkshire Dialect Society told me of how accent could still vary significantly between villages only three or four fields apart. "Language constitutes your boundaries. It gives you a sense of belonging. It is the classic way that local people detect folk from elsewhere. You feel more comfortable among your own." And the vast majority of the general populace still live not far from where they were born.

In Knottingley, a small industrial town in West Yorkshire, that was still the case and the extended family remained a potent force. Indeed, the sense of community had been enhanced by the miners' strike, the legacy of which was still felt in the community centre run by an offshoot of the miners' wives' group. But it felt like the remnant of a passing era. As in so many other places, the sense of community is restricted to the over 40s. Youth unemployment was ravaging the area, producing either migration or a sense of alienation and dislocation which breeds the opposite of community values.

I had been primed for this. "The Thatcherite vision which so dominated the 1980s had power because it spoke lucidly to one source of human motivation: economic self-advancement," the Chief Rabbi had written. "The political domain becomes a place where there are winners and losers, and where there is nothing to give the losers hope."

The problem goes well beyond Thatcherism. The Enlightenment may have freed energies to create capitalism and the democratic state, but it also set in motion processes which eroded the traditions, rituals and beliefs which nurtured a sense of commonality. Individualism became the new philosophical creed. Fraternity was dropped and liberty and equality were left alone to battle it out. There was no community to mediate in the polarity between the individual and the state.

Perhaps, even as Don Cuppitt insists that the new religion will not be found in parishes but in the global media, so new community will be found elsewhere. Clearly Mr Blair thinks so. "The notion of community, for me, is less a geographical concept than a belief in the social nature of human beings," he said more recently.

So could it be found in the workplace? There was certainly something of that in the Japanese electronics factory I visited in Wales. True, the spur of unemployment which Thatcherism sharpened continues to have its effect in taming the workforce, but there was at Diaplastics Ltd a spirit of consensus and common purpose. It grew in part from the Japanese emphasis on relationships. There was a genuine sense that workers and managers were all "members" of the company, eating in the same canteen, wearing the same uniform and all joining the production line if there was a crisis.

But there was solidarity, too, inside the beleaguered British Aerospace factory near Preston which is the scene of regular protests by those who object to the sale of its Hawk aircraft to the regime in Indonesia. There was, said Frank Coulton, the senior shop steward, a tremendous sense of community now. "I've never known relations between management and union to be as good as they are now," he said. "It's brought us closer together, being under siege."

Something similar was true among the middle class in Belfast. The phrase "business community" is often a mere form of words. In Northern Ireland there was a sense of real cohesion among the entrepreneurial class. Ironically, it was in part a product of the province's violent past. Peace seems likely to open up the economy, allowing outside firms to compete with small local businesses. Money which once circulated in the province will now be sucked out to head offices in London. The impact on the local community could be far-reaching.

Protestors at the factory gates, or civil disorder in an entire province, cannot be the acceptable price of community, of course. But, as at Diaplastics, other mechanisms are in use throughout the country.

The rural community in Cumbria knew it was cementing social bonds at the Cockermouth Agricultural Show. Committee meetings to organise it were one of the few things which brought isolated farmers together through the year. Amid its competitions to preserve local traditions like cake- making and needlework, it made particular efforts to bring children into the process, to encourage values of non-passivity and participation.

Such conscious efforts to inculcate a communal sense among individuals were apparent in many of the places I visited. They were at their most artificial among the game-playing of the three temporary communities - of actors, student musicians and language pupils - I encountered during the university vacation at Girton College. But they were at perhaps their most effective in Edinburgh, among the impressive attempts by the Bethany Christian Trust to build a sense of community among the isolated individuals who make up the city's homeless.

It was not simply that the trust had cleverly structured its levels of help - soup kitchen, temporary hostel, supported flats and job training - to build an increasing sense of involvement. It had also made community values a key element in its drink and drug rehabilitation unit. "It's good," said one reforming addict. "You've got someone to talk to when you feel like a drink. And you have another resident as an escort when you go out. You begin to think about the impact on the others if you go back drunk. It breeds responsibility and outward thinking, not just looking after No 1."

It was encounters like that which give the lie to the notion that society is, as Hobbes put it, a mere association set up to maintain order. Reciprocity, trust and solidarity are what separates communities from associations, and these are qualities which cannot be experienced by the individual alone.

There is more to all this than bleeding-heart stuff. It is the trust which community fosters that is the foundation of prosperity in the modern economic order, according to the high priest of Capitalism Triumphant, Francis Fukuyama. Without a general sense of trust, enterprises find it hard to grow beyond the familial, says the End-of-History man in his latest book, Trust. Those with a poor civil society, like Italy or China, do worse than those like Germany and Japan where a sense of community thrived under relatively decentralised political authority.

The members of the Bournemouth Gilbert & Sullivan Society may not have realised it when I encountered them at the Buxton G&S Festival, but they are a paradigm of that civil society. It is in such associations, says the Chief Rabbi, "that we acquire the virtues that sustain our common life: duty, honesty, service, self-sacrifice, integrity, neighbourliness, fortitude and civility. Without these, the workings of the market are too impersonal and arbitrary to sustain a sense of shared belonging".

G&S is, of course, a passion, and there is a clue in that. There is something spiritual and emotional among a people bonded by a strong commitment to shared values. For community truly to work, said Reinhold Niebuhr in his seminal book Moral Man and Immoral Society, calculations of entitlement must be softened by a generous self-giving, "above and beyond the call of duty".

Some, like Jonathan Sacks, feel that religion is essential for that. The father of the Hindu family at whose festivities I was a guest in Wellingborough clearly thought so too, though for him religion was not an inner spiritual quest so much as a set of traditions which sustain family and community. Yet the G&S showed that it could be encompassed by something much broader than religion.

Tony Blair, I suspect, agrees. "It's easy to deny the idea of community, and some may feel unhappy with it," he said when he first used the word in his maiden speech in 1983. "But, call it community values, family values or even spiritual values, what they have in common is something bigger than `me'."

The task now is to discover what they are, and what are the techniques which a society needs to nurture them.

The evidence of my brief tour of Britain is that the plant of community has not withered, but it does need conscious tending. "Social capital is like a ratchet that is more easily turned in one direction than another," warned Fukuyama. "It can be dissipated by the actions of governments much more readily than those governments can build it up again." That is the challenge, Mr Blair.

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