Repairing the Damage

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.’ – Margaret Thatcher interview 23 September 1987

It was all Margaret Thatcher’s fault, so it is said, this lurch to the right in the nineteen eighties, towards rampant individualism with its unhealthy obsession on self. It was she, her critics bemoaned, who started us down this path towards becoming an uncaring society, with each man or woman determined to looking after themselves by stepping over anybody and everybody in their quest for loadsamoney and worldly success. It was her jaundiced view, that there was no such thing as society that duped us into ignoring its very possibility. It was, they still say, her fault that England finds itself in the mess it is in today.

All of which may be rather naive and silly and yet the truth is that, today, in many parts of England, society as we once knew it, (despite David Cameron’s efforts to resurrect it), has ceased to exist. Many areas of our towns and bigger cities are no longer safe. For many, caught up in such places, the only escape is to stay indoors, to pursue a virtual life, trying to look after their children until they have to go to school where metal detectors protect them, but only during daylight. Those that have the means have moved abroad or live in gated communities, modern day moat and baileys. CCTV cameras watch every move we make yet youth crime, and knife crime has soared along with the number of children with single parents, the proliferation of binge drinking, drug abuse and the numbers in our prisons. Society is hemorrhaging and with it, the idea of community as families turn in on themselves, not trusting their neighbors for fear that they too might wrest an advantage from them. Obsessed with real and imagined dangers, they have drawn their children closer to them, watching and managing them, fighting for their future, but without allowing them to connect with those around them.

Technology has played its part as well as our children have moved into the shadows, to inhabit a world of virtual reality preferable to the reality that they see out their windows. It is little surprise that a survey released this week by Birmingham University said that parents are worrying that social media hinders children’s moral development as well as exacerbating traits such as anger, arrogance and hatred for they have reason to do so.

Communication increasingly exists it seems via the internet, via texts, via anything that doesn’t require face-to-face conversation. People are scared, not sure how to keep up or control what is happening, turning to a mantra of self- analysis and self-obsession, learning the steps to happiness, but being unable to walk them. Increasingly, communities polarize, as does the country, in terms of wealth and opportunity. Trust evaporates, surety is compromised, parenting becomes primal.

All of which is a huge challenge to our schools. We cannot swim against the tide of technology, but we can teach our children how to manage it better. We can work at instilling the key values of tolerance and understanding by getting children to look outwards, by teaching them how to cope with adversity, how to be charitable. We can encourage face-to-face communication where the eyes say what the words cannot and provide the means to communicate honestly and sincerely. We can educate against prejudice and build up a sense of shared responsibility, both within and outside the school gates. We can work on sharing and promote the value of community. We can teach respect for one’s elders or for different cultures and faiths. We can do all these things, but we cannot do so on our own.

Brexit, whatever else it has done, has forced us to look at the fault lines that divide our society. It has laid down the gauntlet as to what sort of country we want to be and, if recent utterances are to be believed, there is a ground swell of opinion, starting from the Prime Minister, for greater social cohesion, for one nation working for all – all of which starts in our families and communities as well as with the machinations of government.

Somehow – and it is a leap of faith on the part of parents – schools must be given more support to provide the glue to hold our communities together. We must learn to trust each other more and learn to see their children as part of a community, whose immediate needs might sometimes be compromised, but whose long-term lives are enriched. We must take responsibility to educate others by example and sometimes, by simply being parents, and giving the role the gravitas it deserves. We must give our children time, not to help turn them into being successful adults, but just to be children. We must teach them that life isn’t just about them, that it is right to venerate their grandparents and to sit still and listen to adults, that their friends and their friends’ friends are bridges to community as are their friends’ enemies. We must not turn generation against generation, as the outcome of the referendum was inclined us do. And we must keep building this sense of identity, of belonging, of being members of society with all its responsibilities and obligations for without it, the world will be a very lonely and dangerous place indeed.