there are so many people who never have a sense of communal exhilaration
according to a recent survey a sense of social isolation is the number one problem of our lives
we need to start actively re-knitting the coalition of British society
Dear oh dear, it’s just as well I never said anything rude about the Lib Dems, eh? What? Did I say that? You mean I once accused them of being a bunch of euro-loving road-hump-fetishists who changed their opinions in mid-stream like so many hermaphroditic parrotfish? And are you telling me that senior Lib Dem sources are accusing me of being a Eurosceptic classics crank? Dear oh dear.
Well, I am sure we can put it all behind us, because there was something about the amazing events of last week that has filled the nation – me included – with a giddy helium-lunged feeling of hope. We looked at that scene in the Downing Street garden – the dappled sunlight, the blossom floating past – and we saw an extraordinary partnership being forged. They were David and Jonathan. They were Achilles and Patroclus. They were Gilbert and George. They were Wallace and Gromit. And you know what, I truly believe it can work, must work, will work.
Of course, there will be strains, and the media will try to pull it apart, but over the next few weeks and months the two parties will discover that there is real content to the idea of liberal conservatism, wherever you put the capital letters, and that there is much more that unites them than they ever dreamt possible.
That process will involve overcoming embarrassment and mistrust, and I hope that the new Government will focus on those very sensations – of unexpectedly dealing with new people. I have a project for the great new centre-Right, centre-Left coalition that we have elected. I have a plan to give meaning to the Big Society. As the Liberals and the Conservatives put aside their mutual antipathy, it is time for the Government to tackle the atomism and the loneliness – and the consequent unhappiness – that increasingly blights our society.
On Saturday I went to watch the Cup Final at Wembley (I know, I know, it’s a tough old life) and came away amazed at the vast tribal power of the event. You look out at this colossal cauldron of more than 88,000 flag-waving fans and you hear the deafening chants of human beings divided in their loyalties but united in their excitement and their sense of common purpose. And as they spill from the exits at the end of the match, you can see the tired but satisfied look – even on the faces of the Portsmouth fans – of people who have been through something together.
My point is that there are so many people, in London and across the country, who never have that sense of communal exhilaration. They don’t have the confidence to go and be jostled by the crowds. They don’t go to concerts in the park. They pretty much stay at home and watch TV, and they tend to be older people.
It was back in 1966 that Paul McCartney wrote his wonderful elegy for Eleanor Rigby, who picked up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, lived in a dream. Then she died in a church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.
And, of course, the Beatles were right to note the fate of lonely people in 1966 – but look at them now. The number of people living on their own has doubled since the 1970s, and most of them are older people.
According to a recent survey by the Joseph Rowntree trust, a sense of social isolation is the number one problem of our lives, with only six out of 10 people trusting their neighbours – down from eight out of 10 in 2003. These older people do not always use the new internet social networks. They are not on Facebook. They may not even have mobile phones.
Every week I read reports of real-life Eleanor Rigbys, people who die alone in care homes after two years without a single visitor, or people whose death only becomes apparent when a funny smell starts to come from the flat or the mail can no longer fit through the door.
And it is not just older people who are lonely these days. Since 2002, there have been more people living on their own, of all ages, than living with another adult human being. There is Bridget Jones, worried that she is going to turn into Eleanor Rigby or – as she famously prophesied – that she would die alone and be eaten by cats.
As I write these words I am conscious that many people will read them with irritation and say they are very happy living on their own, thanks, and the last thing they want is the petty jealousies and bickering of family life. They will say that they like their routine and their independence and not having to worry about whether someone else wants to watch a different TV channel. To all such people, I naturally apologise, and I simply wonder about the rest.
Can it really be good for us that nearly half the meals in Britain are now eaten alone? Is it a good thing that nearly half the ready meals in Europe are consumed in the UK? I think not, and that is why we in London are supporting the Big Lunch – led by Rosie Boycott and Tim Smit – to get people out of their homes and to share a huge communal and inter-generational street event on July 18.
I think we should go further, and I hope local councils will consider the idea of a Fete Week, or Fete Weekends, when we do everything to clear away the petty restrictions and the form-filling, and throw the streets open for people to organise stalls and events – from tombolas to whacking the rat – to raise money for good causes and to meet
Of course, it will all be fraught with potential embarrassment. We all have an instinctive British horror of forced jollity and a suspicion of people pretending to like us slightly more than they really do. But we need to start actively re-knitting the coalition of British society – and it can’t be any more embarrassing than asking a Lib Dem to cosy up to a Tory.
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