The sense of affinity, of belonging, of tribe that has shaped British politics for a century is now yielding to new loyalties. A shift from political affiliation to identity is changing how our politics is conducted.Douglas Alexander
31 July 2019
The crisis in belonging
DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Today in Britain we live in a divided country, is there anything that still unites us and can help shape a shared sense of belonging?
This piece was originally written for the Policy Institute's new Policy Review publication, which features essay contributions on a range of different issues by the institute’s researchers and Visiting Faculty.
Today in Britain we are living through a crisis in belonging.
The country is divided – economically and culturally. Who is us and who is them? Why today does a sense of belonging also so often bring a sense of fear and division in its wake? Why are so many of the questions that dominate our public debates really a variation on a single question: who are we?
We live in times when that question has shifted centre stage in our national life.
What forces are shaping those shifts and how are they are changing our political debates? Why in the years after the financial crisis are we seeing arguments about belonging and identity so often overwhelm familiar ones about economics and income? This isn’t what most of us imagined would be our future.
But a decade of stagnating wages and the anger it has generated helps explain the view that says “Let’s stick with our tribe”. This economic anger and cultural anxiety has grown at a time when traditional religious observance – something that has created division between communities, but still retains the power to bind – is dying out in many parts of Britain.
The older bonds of religion, work and class have always had the potential to divide, creating a very strong sense of “us” but at the expense of “them”. But indisputably they provided huge sections of society with a belonging to share.
Therefore, in this age of much less religious observance, how well have we done in finding a unifying secular story in recent years? The recent financial crisis trashed many people’s faith in the powerful: in the bankers, the politicians, even in the experts. And leaders too have failed to tell a story that can bind. As a result, the tectonic plates of British politics started shifting as people flocked to stories and storytellers that made sense of their anxieties, hopes and fears.
No sense of belonging has proved more durable than what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called “the imagined community of the nation”. In this time of economic anger and cultural anxiety, growing numbers of voters have sought to anchor themselves in a sense of place, a sense of tradition, a sense of tribe.
Nationalism is on the rise in Britain and in many other countries. 10 or 15 years ago, very few at that time were predicting the re-emergence of much deeper, older stories and myths of national belonging. Even old national identities are constructed or imagined by storytellers and songwriters, by poets and writers, as well as politicians. Scottish nationalism is a case in point, rooted in a similar sense of “us” and “them”.
Rooted in nationalism is a politics of a sense of difference. Personally, I am morally uncomfortable with a politics that at its heart is about difference. Patriotism to me doesn’t require an enemy, but nationalism always does. Getting our country back. Making our country great again. Taking back control. These are the stories of belonging and loss that are shaping the destinies of nations. Understanding the power of shared stories is fundamental to understanding the divisions and debates of contemporary Britain.
The sense of affinity, of belonging, of tribe that has shaped British politics for a century is now yielding to new loyalties. A shift from political affiliation to identity is changing how our politics is conducted. There is no scope for compromise. So, is our fate a future of divisive votes and divided communities? Can we develop different and better stories of belonging? Stories that can pull us together, rather than pull us apart?
Throughout the whole of human history shared stories have brought individuals and communities together. Many of us got a sense of story on the night of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. We saw Britain’s past evoked, with all of its trouble and strife. There was very British humour – who else would have had their Queen jump out of a helicopter in front of a watching world? We saw the diversity of modern Britain, celebrated by the arrival of the Windrush, along with a celebration of our popular culture and indeed our National Health Service. But ceremonies like this are, at most, a once in a lifetime event.
Yet, in an age of diverse channels, where our social media tends to affirm as much as inform us, can either stories or rituals possibly have the power now to build us into shared belonging?
Even if as a country we manage to fashion shared stories aimed at bringing us together, they will only resonate if they reflect and are underpinned by shared experience. Whether we rebuild our common life or are simply pulled apart by economic divisions, this will determine whether those shared stories take root. We need to learn much more about the trends in, and nature of, division in order to know what to do to encourage belonging.
But could our enduring yearning for human relationships for a sense of belonging actually provoke a different and more hopeful future? Could the economic anger and cultural anxiety we are witnessing across the country today actually spark a renewal in our national life?
If, for example, you look at the establishment of credit unions or trades unions, at its core that was an expression of a value for solidarity. So much of our economy today – some would argue our society today – operates on a market logic of meritocracy, not solidarity. Can we therefore imagine institutions beyond the marketplace that we are operating in today? I’m convinced that as human beings we are hardwired to belong. Without people feeling a greater sense of security, however, even the most compelling shared stories founder, and as we are witnessing, the wrong stories will simply shrink our minds and shrink our hearts.
I believe we belong together in a way that’s deeper and far more primal than our politics today suggests. As humans we are all at our best when our lives are enmeshed in relationships, and respect and belonging. So we can build a future together where we become better at sharing risks, rewards and resources. We can build a future of shared stories, of shared hopes and of shared dreams. But we can only do so if instead of turning away from each other, we actually turn towards each other. And that’s more than a task for our politicians. That’s a task for each of us.
Douglas Alexander is Chair of UNICEF UK, a former Cabinet Minister, and a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.