British Politics – When is a Community not a Community?
The modern Queen of Classics, Professor Mary Beard, is one of very few people whose blog I visit every day or two. In Alarm Clock Britain she laments the lack of real argument emanating from British politicians in this election year:
“….if politicians talk in soundbites, if they don’t write their own speeches and if they don’t even write their own tweets . . . how can they possibly complain that the electorate is disengaged? I mean there is nothing to engage with, apart from a brand.
My argument was NOT that the ancients got it right (people are always wanting me to say that, and it is almost never true). But I was trying to say that they did retain a real focus on words meaning something and being part of an ARGUMENT, rather than a set of disconnected slogans.”
Amen to that!
If there is a word that for me symbolises the disconnect between meaning and politico-speak, it’s “community”.
I suppose that a good non-pejorative definition of the word would be an informal group of people with common interests. But in the hands of journalists and politicians it becomes something that they’re not part of but would like to influence, manipulate, appeal to or profit from. So when urban politicians talk about “the community”, they’re usually referring to people in the same location whom they consider inward-looking and vaguely threatening. As in the Asian “community” in Blackburn, or the Somali “community” in Tower Hamlets.
A “community leader” is often a self-appointed spokesperson, or perhaps an imam or a local councillor. These are the people politicians “reach out” to, as if they were engaged in some kind of close encounter of the third kind, often with unfortunate consequences when the leader’s motives and agenda are not what they appear to be on the surface.
Community is also a word beloved of social workers, but even more dishonestly used in their hands. Because of all people they know that most communities they work in are anything but – collections of people, each with individual problems or dysfunctional families who find themselves living in the same place by accident or out of desperation.
Communities the politicians don’t generally talk about tend to be diverse, reasonably outward-looking and relatively content with their lives. Such that they don’t actually feel the need to define themselves as communities at all. Most people in communities the politicians refer to would by and large prefer not to be in them.
I’m not saying that the word should be replaced by another pejorative term, like ghetto, enclave or ‘hood. I just bristle at the well-meaning or manipulative use a word that harks back to the pre-industrial age when people were born, lived and died in the same place.
Most modern “communities” – whether they are the gated compounds of the paranoid rich, the ephemeral horde of social media users or hard-pressed inner city sink estates – are rootless and have no particular emotional attachment to where they live. I mean come on: do Bangladeshi tailors, Polish carpenters and little old ladies who remember the Blitz think of themselves as members of the same community? Paedophiles, sport fans and ISIS recruiters sharing the net? Stockbrokers, oligarchs and and media tycoons in Beaconsfield stockades? I don’t think so.
The commonality of interest among most so-called communities is often defensive and dependent on the needs of the moment rather than stemming from a deep sense of interdependence and mutual responsibility.
I’m sorry to be cynical, and yes, I’m generalising wildly, so shoot me down if you wish. But when I hear people blathering on about “the community”, my bullshit filter pops up, and I know they’re peddling an illusion behind which sits an agenda. There should be no shame in living in an economically deprived area, and the last thing the residents of Tower Hamlets and Blackburn need is patronising politicians sweeping them up into a meaningless collective cliché.
Nothing like an election to inspire a good rant!