A blog reflecting on key themes discussed at the 'Inequality & Social Cohesion' seminar held at Cumberland Lodge on 28 March 2017

Published Date: 
Thursday, 27 April 2017
Owen Gower, Programme Director, Cumberland Lodge

This seminar convened a range of representatives from academia, NGO groups, the civil service and parliament to explore what ‘social cohesion’ means and what might be the relationship between social cohesion and inequality.  

Julia Unwin, former CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, introduced the subject, after which participants were invited to discuss four questions:

  • Was Brexit, as some commentators claimed, a manifestation of resentment at inequality?

  • Should poverty be the policy focus, not ‘inequality’?

  • Is economic inequality incompatible with solidarity and cohesion?

  • Does ‘social cohesion’ mean that a society has ‘common values and purpose’?

This seminar was held under the Chatham House rule.  In what follows Owen Gower, our Programme Director, draws together some of the key themes of the discussions:

Is a cohesive society a healthy society? Social cohesion is the solution to loneliness. Social cohesion prevents terrorism. Social cohesion is what makes a community pull together to search for a missing child. From all this, one begins to suspect that cohesion is a ‘spray-on’ panacea for disparate and complex social problems.

Matters are made worse when we consider that a ‘cohesive society’ could also be one that has a rigid and potentially stifling social order, in which everyone ‘knows their place’; or that the desire for ‘social cohesion’ could in fact provide ideological cover for the jingoistic protection of a nostalgic mono-culture which repels outsiders.  

Social cohesion is not in itself good or bad: it can both support and harm, nurture and exclude. But it is nevertheless a powerful term, offering, as it does, a place-holder for the destination we are trying, as a society, to reach: away from fragmentation, resentment, and apathy.  

Sense of belonging

The avoidance of these social evils, though, might be better achieved if we focused not on cohesion, but on belonging. It is because we are secure in our sense of belonging that we exercise our right to vote, that we collaborate with others to work towards a common good, that we extend our support to those in need. When our sense of belonging is shaken by scarcity, we retreat into exclusionary – though perhaps cohesive – group identities.

The financial crisis of 2008 highlighted the breakdown of the social compact, which implied that working hard in education and employment would yield secure prosperity.

On the one hand living standards have flat-lined for most of us; on the other, secure employment and the continuity of our work identities have been undermined by the globalisation and mechanisation of labour. There is an increasing feeling that rising tides used to raise all boats, now they just raises the yachts.

Gross inequality, combined with a sense that the odds are stacked against us, has left us without the confidence or optimism about the future.  In this climate of insecurity we struggle to create a unified sense of belonging which respects a diversity of values and identities.

'The way forward'

So how to proceed, against this backdrop? Opinions differed on this.

Some participants predicted that the latent social conflict caused by regional, generational and class inequalities will increasingly spill over into social unrest. Others felt that the economic uncertainties of Brexit, amongst other things, will be met by a commitment from local employers to re-engage with and re-invest in labour development in their local areas. Still others felt that the diminishing levels of trust in public institutions would be counter-balanced by renewed vigour in grass-root community campaigns. There was a call for greater regulation of tax havens for the super-rich, and for creative policies to extend the benefits of shareholder capital to the general public.

Above all, and fittingly for Cumberland Lodge, there was a consensus that civic spaces are a fundamental resource for promoting responsible engagement with the complex social problems to which ‘social cohesion’ is a supposed solution.