By Sunder Katwala
Director, British Future
SPRING begins with a tangible sense of hope. March will surely be a month when we look both back and forward.
When lockdown began in 2020, few of us anticipated being still caught in its grip a year later. That anniversary will provide a sombre moment to reflect once again on the tragic scale of life lost.
But there is now a sense of movement too. The re-opening of schools next week will come as a relief to children and adults alike, in my house at least, and many others too. The vaccine roll-out offers optimism that the roadmap beyond lockdown need not take a wrong turn this time, if we navigate it with due care. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget has also directed our attention to new challenges and arguments ahead.
As our horizons begin to expand, what have we learned from this extraordinary year? How has it changed society – and what do people want to happen next? Those were the questions asked by the Talk/Together project, the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us, and what can bring us together in these difficult times. Almost 160,000 people took part, sharing their ideas about what we should do now and in the future.
Talk/Together’s report, Our Chance to Reconnect, shows how society pulled together, not apart, during the Covid pandemic. Despite all that we have been through, we heard that twice as many people feel our response to the coronavirus crisis has, on balance, shown the unity of our society more than its divisions. Twelve million people stepped up to help others during the pandemic, a third volunteering for the first time. This new army of volunteers is keen to help out in future too.
One concern was that the pandemic response may help local ‘bonding’ with ‘people like us’ but make ‘bridging’ across groups harder. But Talk/Together heard examples of how relief efforts crossed community divides – a common theme from Blackburn and Bradford to Belfast. Efforts at inter-faith dialogue have sometimes needed revitalising, but there was new energy, youth and engagement in social action that went beyond the usual suspects in ways that can have a post-pandemic legacy.
The national mood shifted in response to events, especially when the pandemic seemed to divide north and south. But, as people felt more connected to their neighbours and communities during lockdown, they got a glimpse of how our society could be – and most of us want to keep that for the future.
So what happens next? This authoritative study was research for a practical purpose. Conducted by British Future with and for the Together Coalition, it provides a foundation for the coalition’s invitation to everybody to join many of this country’s leading organisations and grassroots groups, and play a part in bridging our divides. The unique scale of Talk/ Together demonstrates the commitment to start with questions, not answers – so what people want to do together drives future action.
What Talk/Together captures is the public sense of our society at a crossroads. People want to keep the gains as well as the pain from Covid, but are less certain that will happen. Some fear we have grown accustomed to staying apart, or that hopes of change will get lost as we go back to normal. But many people believe that this experience can become a platform for sustained change.
This will be a challenging year to achieve that. Some divides, especially over Brexit, are starting to fade, but new ones lie ahead.
As Scotland goes to the polls, can political disagreements as big as whether the UK has a future be conducted with civility? Talk/Together heard the expectations of change after last year’s anti-racism protests – and also about how debates about race feel especially divisive and toxic online. Those who don’t want a “culture war” clash about history and the empire must find a stronger voice in a polarised debate too. Divides between rich and poor emerged as the top public concern after the pandemic.
So the Talk/Together research highlights the strong public appetite for more unifying moments that bring people together, while showing why concerted action to address these causes of social fragmentation is an essential foundation if calls for unity are to preach beyond the converted.
Bridging such social divides cannot be an overnight task. Those who have founded the Together Coalition first set out the need for the 2020s to be a ‘decade of reconnection’ before anybody had even heard the word Covid. As we emerge from the pandemic, everybody sees that we now have this chance to reconnect, but which path our society chooses will depend on how many of us turn up to take part in what happens next.