New studies show the UK deeply divided. What can be done?


If the last few years in British politics have taught us anything, it's that the old notion of the UK as 'one nation', first referenced by Benjamin Disraeli in the mid 19th Century, is as much a fantasy now as it was then.

The 2014 Scottish Independence referendum saw 45 per cent vote to leave the UK. The 2016 EU referendum saw 52 per cent vote to leave the EU. Asking such binary questions seems to have forced us into a place of division and difference. Or were we in that place anyway and the votes have just shown it up?

The 2015 and 2017 General election campaigns have shown up further the large divisions between urban and rural, north and south, seaside town and big city, and so on. In the words of the social commentator David Goodhart, the country is divided into 'somewheres' and 'anywheres' – people who are rooted in place and value family and community and people who are mobile and more comfortable in diverse and changing surroundings.

The general atmosphere in the wake of the recent election has been so rancourous that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called for a cross party approach to Brexit, fearing the 'poison' which has been drawn by the debate. A 'zero-sum, winner takes all' attitude was risking the unity of the nation, wrote the Archbishops.

Into this fractious environment comes a major report from the Social Mobility Commission – set up by the previous Conservative government and chaired by former Labour minister Alan Milburn. As Christian Today reported this morning, 'It warns that without deep-seated reform, social and economic divisions in British society are set to widen with consequences for community cohesion and economic prosperity.'

'What is so striking about this new analysis,' said Milburn, 'is how divided we have become as a nation. A new geographical divide has open opened up, a new income divide has opened up and a new generational divide has opened up.'

The Commission's findings are worrying in that they show that despite the investment, reforms and policies of successive governments, ''too little' has been done to break the link between socio-economic background and social progress.'

There are legitimate criticisms of social mobility as an end goal, with some arguing tackling inequality should be the aim. Still, the report, even in its own terms, is an indictment of the state of our country at the moment.

Into this toxic mix comes another damning story today. Researchers at Oxford University found that food bank users were suffering, 'profound poverty and destitution, and struggling to buy food and pay bills.' The report also found that, 'people with a disability or chronic illness who were in receipt of benefits were disproportionately likely to be referred to food banks, as were lone parents and poorer families with three or more children.'

This is unremittingly grim news. It's a statistic which is overused, but remains true – the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. We are rich beyond the means of most of the rest of the globe, and in parts of this country there are people who can't afford to eat.

The Trussell Trust, and other church-run food banks are doing all they can, but ultimately we also need the government to put together effective responses.

An American friend who is in the UK at the moment remarked on the clear difference between British and American political culture – especially in relation to the Grenfell tower tragedy. She observed the British demand that the Government act quickly and decisively to solve the problems. This would not be the case in the USA, where it is presumed that individual effort, private charity and the free market will solve most problems.

I'm inclined to agree with her observation and suggest that I prefer the British way of doing things – the government should be playing a major role in reducing poverty and lack of social mobility, and right now, it seems that isn't happening. This isn't a partisan point – the commission's report makes clear that governments of both parties have failed.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: 'This report highlights the need for all of us to refocus our efforts on ensuring that every child is able to reach their full potential regardless of their background.' He's right. It's down to all of us to do what we can to turn around the worrying statistics. Individuals need to take responsibility, families to provide support and charities and civil society to step in when that is problematic.

But the state has a role to play in all of this. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, played a significant role in the establishment of the British Welfare State. Ever since the Church has argued for a strong role for the state alongside the market and civil society in ensuring the Common Good. This voice is needed more than ever now – as we face entrenched division and inequality.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy