Who’s on the Honours List?

Luke Tryl - June 2021

Whether it was the brother and sister team who delivered 200,000 meals to frontline workers, the distillery manager who switched from producing whisky to hand sanitiser or the taxi firm owner offering free rides to NHS staff, last weekend’s honours list showed that along with the horror and the heartache of the pandemic, the past year has also seen some of the best of Britain.

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What’s more these acts of kindness, community and compassion aren’t limited to the handful of stories we’ve seen in the news or read about in the papers. In fact, More in Common research finds that more than in any other country we polled, British people agree that ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that most people in our country care about each other’. And some of the largest improvements in people’s sense of community were among people who before the pandemic were lowest on social trust. 

It’s hard to reconcile that reality of community spirit with the other Britain that we so often hear about.  The Britain riven between the 48% or the 52%, Boomers or Gen Zers, Northerners or  Southerners, Corbynistas or Farageites, Marmite lovers or haters. Looked at this way, the story of Britain in 2021 is one of two warring camps locked in a bloody battle for the soul of the country.

 

So which Britain are we?

Britain’s Choice, a landmark survey of British public opinion by More in Common, casts some light on the answer. On some issues, we do overwhelmingly speak with one voice. That’s particularly true when it comes to our responsibilities as citizens to one another, our pride in the National Health Service and the urgent need to tackle climate change. On other issues we are further apart. But unlikely the binary (and quite frankly lazy) characterisation we’re so often told exists, Britain isn’t split down the middle. In fact, More in Common found there are seven distinct British groups, whose views overlap and diverge depending on the issue you’re looking at. For instance, the groups who most disagree about how to deal with racism/Britain’s past, find common ground on the need to tackle inequality, those who agree wholeheartedly on the need to protect the environment, take very different views on flying the flag.

This kaleidoscope of views is something we should welcome; debate and diversity of opinion make for healthy societies and help us avoid the perils of homogeneity and group think. But a focus on difference shouldn't obscure the very real common ground that knits together the fabric of Britain. Nor should we be blind to the risk of our country fragmenting or succumbing to the ‘us-versus-them’ debates we see in other countries. Because the warning signs are there – half of the public told More in Common that they had never seen the country so divided, most people said that they felt that ‘the system’ is ‘rigged’ and majorities of every group feel looked down on by those in positions of power.

For campaigners, politicians and the media the temptation to exaggerate differences can be hard to resist. Having worked in politics and in the charity sector, I’ve seen from both sides how division can make for good copy, how wedges can make for good electoral strategy and that outrage is often a great fundraising strategy. Just like the perpetual war in Orwell’s 1984, there will always be self-interested reasons to stoke up a sense of us vs them.

But the consequences of succumbing to the Twitterification of debate are bleak. We only have to look across the pond to see what happens when people start to see society as an existential struggle between two warring tribes. Everyone loses. And even leaving aside, those, more extreme consequences of polarisation – the more we see ourselves as two opposing sides, the harder it will be to come together to deal with the important issues of the day – whether that’s helping kids catch up after the pandemic, rethinking our economy to tackle climate change, or coming up with a proper plan to improve social care for the elderly. We’ll only tackle these issues, and many other burning injustices, if we approach them from a common starting point.  

That doesn’t mean adopting wishy washy centrism, it doesn’t mean saying that culture and identity aren’t important to people (they are), it doesn’t mean sanitising debate. Instead it’s about recognising that how we react to disagreements is as important as what those disagreements are about. It’s about leadership: using persuasion and empathy, rather than hectoring, when we make the case for social progress. It’s about bringing people into the story when we promote and celebrate our heritage, rather than excluding them from it.

That’s why I’m so pleased to have joined More in Common as their UK Director, to help turn our attention back to the vast common ground we share and strengthen the bonds between people across the UK. As Britain emerges from the pandemic, we have an opportunity and a choice -  we can focus our collective energies on the mission of building back better and use this as the moment to create a fairer, genuinely inclusive Britain, or we can retreat into sniping, isolated silos. What should at least give us reason for hope is that, not just in their answers to opinion polls, but through their real-life actions during the pandemic, the British public have consistently made clear the choice they want to make.