How can we in Britain learn to live together more successfully? We should cultivate an "encounter culture," in which it becomes easier to interact with others. This may require compulsory community service for young peopleby David Lammy / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
The debate over identity and Britishness has been raging in Britain over the last few years, and with particular urgency since last year’s London bombings. These issues of identity extend to a common social challenge. Over the next generation in Britain we must re-learn how to live together successfully. The solution I advocate is not to pretend that everybody can feel the same affinity with all identities outside their own, but to build an “encounter culture” in which it becomes easier and more rewarding to interact with and respect others.
This is not just about government and public policy; it is personal, cultural, civic. The starting point is the recognition that it affects everybody. As a black MP representing one of the most ethnically diverse constituencies in the UK, people often assume that when I address these issues, I am talking primarily about race. But look beyond race, at the hundreds of thousands who have joined Countryside Alliance marches in recent years, for example, driven in part by the perception that the urban majority do not understand their culture and values. Or look at inter-generational conflict. We know that every generation laments the declining moral standards of the one that comes after it. But the intensity of public feeling aroused by anti-social behaviour, and the widely held perception that legal sanctions like Asbos are necessary, seems to represent an unusually sharp divide. Look forward a generation to the potential conflict of resources over pensions, social care, the costs of climate change and so on, and you may wonder which loyalties will be most influential in determining people’s attitudes to the distribution of those resources.
One of the defining characteristics of contemporary British society is its social diversity. Identities—whether based on occupation, class, faith, or territory—that once perpetuated themselves by being passed automatically from one generation to the next have become more fragmented and conditional, and in some cases disappeared altogether. In a globalised, consumerist society, identity seems much less something we inherit and increasingly something we can choose, shape or discard. We go on six times more foreign holidays that we did in 1971. We travel seven miles further each week to visit friends than we did in the 1980s. We spend eight times longer online per week than we did in the late 1990s. This is the paradox Manuel Castells identified when he wrote about “the net and the…