In the wake of the London Bridge terrorist attacks, Theresa May has quite rightly called for unity within a society increasingly under siege from a cult rooted in hatred. However, given the origins of the perpetrators of other recent terrorist attacks, it is likely that these young men were also born and raised in the UK. As such, we also need to look to issues deeply rooted in our own national culture that create the seed-bed in which bitterness, division and hatred can flourish.
The highly individualistic culture which has been nurtured by successive UK governments over the past four decades has had the effect of isolating individuals, making every situation a race or a competition. This is a lesson that British children learn very early in life. In the Guardian's most recent Secret Teacher column, the writer describes how children's opportunities are diminished by an education culture in which 'every decision is made with the league table in mind' rather than by what is best for individual children, who instead grow up in a culture in which they become results pawns, learning to allocate value to themselves and others through this warped mirror.
The current government aim to intensify this situation by ranking children on entry to school, with the inevitable result that the race will begin in the nursery, with some children discovering on the very first rung of the education ladder that society has pigeon-holed them as somehow less worthy than their peers. It is inevitable that those who come from financially advantaged homes and speak English as a first language will form the largest contingent of those who rank most highly on this scale, and, in time, be more likely to move onto the new selective grammar schools that Mrs May is planning which will further compound these deep divisions.
Children raised in such a society learn to become competitive rather than collaborative, and to construct other human beings as potential enemies rather than potential friends. The evidence that this is increasingly the case can be demonstrated through popular culture which has arisen over the last few decades, for example in the reality media that dominates TV scheduling which is based in competition and the humiliation of "losers", for example The X Factor, Take Me Out and Big Brother. The everyday reality of contemporary young people additionally involves rampant competition for attention and 'likes' on social media and the inevitable anguish that this creates.
Under successive Conservative administrations, funding has been removed from initiatives aimed at equalising life chances and bringing people together, such as Children's Centres, youth clubs and community education, which impacts particularly heavily upon families experiencing financial difficulty, and families in which the adults speak English as a second language. The government seeks to further stigmatise and humiliate those who have access to less resources in society with a range of punitive measures such as the bedroom tax and work capability assessments. Is it therefore any wonder that many from the most disadvantaged UK communities voted for Brexit, constructing our European neighbours as competitors for resources rather than as allies with the potential to collaborate with us to create a more prosperous society?
It is difficult to be a young person in a society which broadcasts a range of messages indicating that individual worth will be decided on the basis of such a plethora of relentless competitions, in which those who are poorly placed will be viewed by others as having little value. Psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that lack of self worth leads to people becoming confused, troubled, anxious and alienated. In such a situation, some, particularly those who entered every race from a position of relative disadvantage, will inevitably turn to alternative communities in which they are able find the validation and hope that they lack, even if such communities are in fact dangerous and dysfunctional.
As Nik Kershaw reflected in 1984, as the culture of extreme individualism wound its tentacles ever more tightly around society, 'winners laugh too soon... cause you never win in human races'. Perhaps, if we were less concerned with pigeon-holing people on endless league tables, and more concerned with supporting the collective well-being of all within society, our young people would be more socially and emotionally robust, hence less vulnerable to extremists and radicalisers.