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Communitarians need better words and more facts

Good communal life is about strong, positive relationships, but it is also about something more tangible

March 4, 2020 - 3:22pm

Community must now be one of the most overused words in politics. It risks becoming meaningless.

Those of us who want politics to focus on bringing ideas of place and belonging back into the heart of our discourse have a vocabulary problem, relying on abstract nouns that leave us vulnerable to the charge of having lofty ideas but a lack of substance.

It is true that we have a romantic vision of what is missing from our individualistic and narcissistic society, but often struggle to describe these ideas quantitatively; we are good on rhetoric but poor on social science.

That’s why the new Onward project called Repairing our Social Fabric, which I’m chairing, has set itself the task of making these words mean something concrete.

We want to create a proper taxonomy for what a strong community means. Good communal life is about strong, positive relationships, but it is also about something more tangible: high streets, youth clubs, roads and pavements; the quality of local government and civic life; access to good, meaningful work, and a sense of pride in where you live.

To describe this network of interweaving threads that make for a good society we are using another term: social fabric. This is designed to convey the physical as well as the intangible, and matches the sense that many of us have that in towns across Britain something has become frayed; that the weft and warp of what makes for a good life are becoming thin and loose.

We will build from the bottom up, starting with asking people across all four countries of the UK what matters most to them and what the ideal community looks like. From there we will design an index of social fabric that provides a quantifiable measure of whether places are thriving or languishing. And then we will identify the people and ideas that can repair and renew this fabric.

We’ve had enough poetic pronunciations of what might be; we hope to offer some well argued prose.

James O’Shaughnessy is a member of the House of Lords. He served as a health minister between 2016-18, and was previously Director of Policy at 10 Downing Street under David Cameron.


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