If we believe everything we see and hear, it would be easy to believe Britain and the British live in fear of the ‘Other’. Be it Brexit, immigration, terrorism or any other social ill, the white noise contributed to by certain politicians, sections of the media and vitriolic commentators is one where we necessarily clutch our handbags, look over our shoulders and avoid dark alleyways in the pursuit of staying safe. Far removed from the old adage, you can’t leave your front door open nowadays. Far removed are we from the nostalgic, rose-tinted Britain many will have us believe.
But are things that different?
Not if this the findings from this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey is anything to go by. Published this week, the Survey suggests that our trust in others – including strangers – remains constant, being much the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago.
The Survey rightly observes how this finding would appear to be at odds with popular and political discourse. As it goes on, given that ordinary people trust each other today in pretty much the same way they have for decades, so too can we conclude that we get along with each other also in much the same way. Admittedly we can’t overlook the fact that levels of hate crime have dramatically increased in recent years or that there are those seeking social traction for their divisive and xenophobic ideologies, but for the majority of ordinary people little has changed how we view, engage and interact with each other.
It is very difficult to dismiss the findings out of hand. Having been carried out annually since 1983, the British Social Attitudes Survey is the country’s longest running survey. Having taken into account the views of near 100,000 people to date, it affords a unique lens through which to the changing views and opinions of the British public about what it’s like to live in Britain and how Britain is run.
As regards improving trust and how we get along, the Survey suggests this is most effectively improved through social connections. In particular, through participating in activities that have a leisure, sport or cultural core. Same too our social networks and the people we regularly engage and interact with. Maybe surprisingly, the Survey finds that voluntary, charitable and political activities are less effective and do not necessarily result in higher levels of trust. As it puts it, doing things with others as opposed for others is far more impacting and thereby meaningful.
As regards running contrary to contemporary political thinking, the findings cast doubts on the effectiveness of such initiatives as the Big Society or National Citizenship Service among others. Maybe more damming however is the finding that without addressing the socio-economic differences and inequalities evident in today’s Britain, there will be little significant improvement in the trust we show towards each other and consequently, how we get along.
This sits in stark contrast to the Government’s recently published Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. Largely regurgitating the community cohesion agenda that emerged following inter-ethnic disturbances in the north of England around the turn of the century, the blame for a perceived lack of cohesion and integration was placed squarely on minority communities. Preferring to blame ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, the Green Paper – like numerous Governmental reports before it – failed to acknowledge the detrimentally causal impact of poverty, deprivation and inequality on cohesion and integration. As I’ve noted previously, if we really wanted to improve cohesion and integration then it is these issues and the underlying causes that need to be prioritised, something politicians are knowingly aware of.
Against a backdrop of ongoing political ineptitude - evident in the latest episode of the Brexit soap opera – it is highly likely the findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey will go unnoticed. This is a shame as it will metaphorically leave the front door open for those politicians and others to continue to perpetuate the myth that we don’t – and can’t - trust and get along with each other as we once did. As we try and return to a Utopian and wholly mythologised time when everything was ‘Great’ on our little island, taking time to remember that the vast majority of us trust and get along with each is a comforting message