We are a more anxious and fragmented society than we want to be. That was true before the pandemic, and while we were resilient during the Covid crisis, it is clearly true after it. So there is work to do for social connection.
What’s been missing?
We have never before had an active integration policy in this country.
We have a very weak evidence base on what is happening, and especially on what works.
So it is important to have the green shoots of an integration strategy.
And it is valuable and important that Belong has done this research with clarity and rigour at this time. It contains key messages for anybody who wants to act for social connection.
There is an important finding about the pattern of more national division but still more local connection. That shows how this has been a volatile, shifting two years. There was a surge of national connection in the first year of the pandemic, though this became more contested.
But it is not the summer of 2020 now. This research clearly reinforces why there would be diminishing returns for trying to clap our way to social connection. That does not mean that those moments of participation are not meaningful. Big moments can have a Heineken effect and narratives of unity matter. But they will play to a narrowing audience – primarily of the affluent and the comfortable – if there isn’t recognition of divides too and clarity about action to bridge them.
Take the stark scale of the experiences of discrimination reported here in the Belong research, which that can be about gender, class, ethnicity or race. This needs to be acknowledged and given a voice in order to challenge it – and also to promote the meaningful contact across divides that can change the underlying attitudes too. If the existence of those experiences is not recognised, the narratives of unity are much less likely to ring true.
The essential role of policy reflects the paradox of social connection surges. They happen most in areas that need them least and least in areas that matter most. You can’t level up social connection without policy intervention.
And the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities now has new evidence from this Belong research of how investment in integration makes a difference. Indeed, the positive comparative effects in the five integration areas are striking. I think they are surprisingly large, given the relatively modest scale of investment and programmes involved, and they make a strong case for sustaining and extending this programme into something bigger.
So there is a big headline finding to take from this rigorous Belong research. If you want to keep the gains as well as the pain of the pandemic – and there have been gains, particularly for volunteering and local connection – then policy matters. That is a message that should matter for everybody, across sectors, who wants to take social connection seriously, and to mobilise civic efforts to turn aspiration into action.
Of course, social connection can’t be done from Whitehall and Westminster – nor can it be done from the town hall locally. What national policy should do is provide the framework and the foundations to facilitate effective civic action. What local leadership can do is to ensure that there are intentional local strategies to bridge divides. This is important evidence that this can make difference to trust, to the reach of volunteering, and to the quality of contact, to ensure that we have bridging as well as bonding contact between people.
We need integration to be an issue for everybody and everywhere, not just in six areas. That framework provides the basis for civic efforts to have more impact. And that enables the challenge to every institution – whether it is Yorkshire cricket club addressing the past and doing something better in the future, or every national and local sports club, and every school, every business and workplace, and indeed all of us – to make our contribution to greater connection, across the divides in our society, that most people agree that we need.
This speech was given at the 26 November launch event for ‘Beyond Us and Them: Societal Cohesion in Britain Through Eighteen Months of COVID-19’ – a new research report by the Belong Network and University of Kent. More information about the report can be found on the Belong Network’s website.