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Artillery Row

The decline and fall of community cohesion

We need a more substantive model of belonging

Amidst the shockwaves sent by the current chaos in the Middle East, many of us witnessed the online furore over pro-Palestinian protestors. There were images of paragliders, flags that were (at least) very similar to jihadi flags, chants that were said to be annihilationist, and shouts of “jihad”, not to mention threats to the Jewish community that even led to schools being closed to protect their pupils.

Most of us will by now also have seen people enjoying the comedic value of the Metropolitan Police Twitterfeed, pointing to the hypocrisy at play in a society where other infringements of appropriate speech are mercilessly punished.

At first glance, this all seems a very “current year” problem — a weird conflation of identity politics, existing alongside and intertwined with an intractable conflict. It has been elevated to symbolic status by participants in the culture wars, despite the obvious ways it doesn’t align in anything like a tidy fashion.

A conflict thousands of miles away is proving divisive

People are caught up either in arguing that certain Jihadi-adjacent groups threaten to harm British citizens, or arguing that certain non-violent behaviours in and of themselves constitute harm. It’s easy to see what political paradigm is decisive here. J. S. Mill’s On Liberty states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

The underlying problem thus goes beyond the current year. It brings to light one of the most serious failures of successive British administrations over the last two decades. It centres on a policy buzz phrase of the noughties: “community cohesion”. This phrase brings a deeper issue into play that wasn’t a concern for Mill: asking how on earth British society might meaningfully cohere, which is being asked again now that a conflict thousands of miles away is proving so divisive.

After the 7/7 bombings, the shock of having homegrown jihadis meant that serious attempts were taken by the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments to tackle what was seen as a root pathology. Their basic presupposition seems quaintly antiquated now: that people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities in the UK need to be signed up to a set of basic commitments that all can share. Otherwise, radically different commitments will collide headlong with each other, we were told, and there’ll be a litany of 7/7s in the decades to come.

The phrase “community cohesion” was already around in July 2005, having entered the lexicon after the Oldham Riots of 2001. It was noted that Oldham included communities that were living “parallel lives” — segregated particularly by housing and education. Initially, community cohesion meant just that there is “common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities”. After 7/7, however, the scope was broadened to include basic expectations of citizenship, with the newly founded Commission on Integration and Cohesion highlighting a requirement for there to be “a strong sense of an individual’s local rights and responsibilities”.

This development meant citizenship is not merely a set of entitlements, but requires something in return — actively subscribing to basic values, at the very least, and taking responsibility for their protection within one’s community.

The community cohesion discourse relied on attitudinal surveys. The Home Office had declared in 2003 that a key indicator of cohesion is that “the per centage of local residents who agree that their area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together”. This then became the focus. Now we have “local belonging” campaigns, like “One Scotland: Many Cultures”, or the symbol of the Bee that arose after the Manchester Arena bombing, and the “We’re Not Afraid” campaign in London. This same period was when the phrase “Diversity is our strength” became firmly established.

Simply avoiding harm wasn’t quite enough to bring people together

Making one’s way through PDF after PDF about community cohesion from that period, it is striking that there was, fleetingly, a suggestion that simply avoiding harm wasn’t quite enough to bring people together. This relates to the much-maligned phrase of that era’s Prevent Strategy: “non-violent extremism”. Whilst attempts to tackle non-violent extremism were primarily about seeking to avoid the creation of the violent extremists who emerge from it, it can also be seen as gesturing toward the possibility that certain forms of life are desirable in and of themselves, over and against other destructive ways of living.

It is precisely this deeper element which seems to have disappeared, however. Now the establishment rarely even gestures toward any positive content for what society should consist in — to what constitutes the good — beyond an avoidance of harm. Take the footage of people ripping down posters of kidnapped kids, for example. It’s hard to imagine that the people filmed doing it are likely to go on ISIS-style killing sprees, nor is it satisfactory to argue that this constitutes a non-violent form of harm to others. It is simply a point of fact that people unable to see the human tragedy portrayed by those posters are not people with whom many feel able to build a cohesive society. There were plenty of people critical of US foreign policy in the run-up to 9/11, but they weren’t ripping down the missing posters that were pinned-up around Ground Zero.

The people doing it might just be guilty of intolerance. Language of toleration already presupposes some sort of standard or benchmark for discerning what can and cannot be tolerated, however, and the avoidance of harm doesn’t suffice. David Cameron’s non-sequitur about being intolerant toward intolerance mirrors those placeless “local belonging” campaigns. They say what’s special about a place is the fact that its specialness is without specifics, except for considering everyone uniquely special, like all the campaigns do.

The key question of the attitudinal surveys related to community cohesion, about the per centage who “feel that people from different backgrounds get on well in their local area”, went from 79 per cent in 2003 to just 81 per cent in 2018. This is a rise of two per cent in fifteen years, years during which there was endless discussion, numerous think-tank reports, White Papers and a raft of lucrative third-sector careers.

Surely the time is ripe to articulate something more substantial — something generated by a distinctive history and culture. That would hone in on a vision for human life that a particular place bequeaths to the world at large, which requires participation as a necessary condition of citizenship.

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