Where does community start and finish?

karenbirchbw-245x3001I have always been a pacifist, so long as I am allowed to ignore the childhood fights with my brothers, and I remember quite clearly being challenged about this by the delightful Reverend Keating who took my 6th form class for what would now be called “citizenship studies” but was then called R.E., religious education.

His argument was that we would all fight, it was just a matter of when. his reasoning went something like this; if this country was involved in a war overseas would you go and fight? If soldiers from that conflict invaded Britain would you fight then? When they marched into your town? Up your street? Down your garden path and into your home? What if someone came to take away a loved one?

The memory of this adolescent debate came into my mind when considering community, specifically where does it start and where does it end?

Family can, for many of us at least, be considered as our most obvious community unit. We have shared history as well as shared genes. In my family a love of Liverpool Football Club binds us together, apart from the Evertonians. And even those misguided individuals are bound with other, powerful connections. On a good day we are all “in the pink”, a phrase first coined by my grandfather.

And beyond family we have our local community. The physical place where we live, our neighbours, local amenities and public spaces. How much we feel connected to that community is a very personal thing. My grandfather lived for 97 years within a 10 mile radius of where he was born and I suspect his feeling of belonging to a place was far stronger than it is for me, having lived and worked in several different places over the years. Writing in his blog on systems thinking my friend Jamie Hamilton asserts the community principle as, “…… a web of social interdependence (a “super-organism”) which enables a more stable, predictable, productive and specialised relationship with the immediate environment, and a more effective response to threat, than would be possible for individuals alone. Without a web-of-interdependence there is no ongoing concrete experience of shared purpose, identity, culture or action, or of negotiating and expressing Agency in pursuit of the commonwealth”.

He goes on to argue  that, particularly with the growth of technology, this web of interdependence is being broken and, looking at some of the social issues that fill our TV screens it is difficult to argue that the type of community experienced by my grandfather’s generation no longer exists.  A lot of political time and column inches, therefore, are being spent on the promotion of sustainable communities, despite there being no agreed definition on what sustainability actually is. A comprehensive definition must surely consider economic, environmental and social factors, but a true understanding remains elusive. The Bristol Accord addresses concerns across Europe about the breakdown of community and sets out EU guidelines for better environment, stronger democracy and more effective local leadership.

For me community cannot be imposed by government directive and guidelines. It is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose. To this end I spent a year working with communities across Scotland. The idea of an intentional community, one where everyone within the community has a shared purpose, is an attractive one at a philosophical level.  In practice, unless the intention was to spend as much time as possible hanging about with the occasional trip to the post office to cash your giro, the majority of the ones I’ve seen are dysfunctional. I think part of the problem is that they are established in really beautiful places. People who have reason to feel alienated from established societies and communities gravitate to them as a tent in the country is better than a bedsit in Easterhouse. And there it ends. There is little commitment to share purpose. The motivation is one of not being somewhere/someone rather than being an active decision to be part of something. This is a very different experience for religious intentional communities, I think. While there may be an element of running away to a convent it takes a positive espousal of shared values to then stay on to become a nun. Monastic orders have survived across millennia. I suspect that most communities that have been created post the occupy movement, wont.

While technology may be to blame, at least in part, for the breakdown of local community it is directly responsible for the birth of a very new type of community, the one we build on-line. As a middle-aged woman I acknowledge that my use, and comfort with, online communities will be very different from the generation behind me; the generation which grew up with this technology. They have friends all over the world, thanks to facebook, whereas I had a single pen-pal in Australia. There are some things that worry me though. Social and anthropological studies have consistently shown that a network of between 50-150 is optimum for maintaining effective social relationships. I have over 500 connections on LinkedIn. It is impossible to maintain a personal social network of that magnitude. I appreciate that my use of LinkedIn is as a business tool rather than creating a personal, social network but the point is, surely, transferable and that having over 150 facebook friends is not the same as having 150+ sustainable personal relationships; what we used to call friendships.

Even when there is little involvement with your local community and minimal interest in social media there is still community. Almost every activity which involves people coming together for common purpose has the potential to create a community. Golf clubs, bridge clubs, bingo halls, allotment societies are all communities of interest. This magazine is one, with women and men from across the UK coming together to create an on-line magazine. We do not serve a local community but rather serve a community with a shared interest in ethical business practices and in furthering equality and diversity in the workplace. An on-line intentional community if you will.

And finally, what about country and state as a wider community. In this year of the referendum on Scotland becoming independent from our English neighbours,  community in this broader context is at the forefront of political thinking. Putting my cards on the table, I firmly believe that decisions should be taken as near to the communities affected by those decisions as possible. In the UK we have a system of governance that places too much power in the hands of a few people and takes control away from the people affected by the policies that centralised government enact. Philosophically, therefore, I tend towards the view that independence would be a good thing as it would bring even more decisions under the control of Holyrood and out of hands of politicians who have little knowledge or concern for lives lived outside of the city-state of London. In my opinion, the only persuasive argument put forward by those campaigning to preserve the union is that Scots should not leave the disadvantaged areas of the UK behind to face their fate alone. That voting ‘yes’ would be turning our backs on those communities who are suffering similar privations at the hands of this coalition government.

I was brought up at a time when, under Derek Hatton’s leadership, Liverpool city council was regularly at odds with the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. My parents live just outside, and my father worked for nearly 30 years, in the Potteries and I know just how hard that part of England is being hit by the current austerity measures. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, progressive forces in Liverpool, and the other great northern cities, don’t seem to be as interested in challenging the distribution of power and wealth in British society as is the case in Scotland. These cities are not  yet demanding more local control, are not demanding their own regional assemblies. Scotland appears to be unique in wanting to create a society where social justice is top of the agenda. The fact that other areas of the UK are not shouting for more control is puzzling to me but is not an argument for Scots to do nothing. Rather by creating more local control and accountability should act as a catalyst to other regions to show what can be done.

It is my belief that attending to matters close to home, within the communities closest physically and closest to heart, stronger communities can be created on the large scale. The community philosophy equivalent to “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”.





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