Every year, when the clock strikes 11 o’clock on November 11, we come together to remember. It is a reminder of friends and times past. But it is also a reminder that communities standing together can make a difference to the lives of many.
The Royal British Legion was set up in the aftermath of the First World War to support the millions of injured veterans who came back home. It is a charity that is still at the heart of our society, one hundred years later.
If it wasn’t for the Poppy Appeal collectors spending cold November days in train stations and on the streets, or the British supermarkets which agree to distribute poppies at the till, the Royal British Legion would not be able to help veterans.
This points us to a deeper truth than simply money raising. As a society, we come together in different ways. Our country and community has made us in many different ways an association. And in communities and villages, towns and cities around and across the United Kingdom, the importance placed on the many forms of support available to us matters.
When people think of what underpins Britain, we often tritely cite the NHS. It is true that the NHS bonds us. But it is also true that it’s not just the state, it’s not just charity, and it’s not just business. The hospice movement, for example, is mostly charity. The state provides the mechanism of finance, and manages the hospitals and clinics which hold together medical care. Private sector businesses contribute to the NHS everyday not least with GP partnerships and millions of vaccines created by drug companies.
The NHS model is replicated across the country in more ways than we think. Social insurance is not just National Insurance, but how the community works together. Charities are not a replacement for the state or vice versa; they are all part of a broader form of insurance that underwrites the risks we face as a community. It is all three working together which provides the depth and strength needed to allow the UK to survive and prosper.
Talking about the importance of community is not a new idea. But what is new is thinking about where the community is fraying and needs rebuilding, and where it is prospering. As Onward’s research shows, we find ourselves in an age of alienation; young people are around half as likely to say people are trustworthy as they were sixty years ago. A generational lack of trust is a warning sign. It risks undermining the feeling of responsibility to others that sits at the heart of social insurance.
Yet there are also real reasons for optimism. Residents’ associations in many areas are flourishing, often through Facebook or Nextdoor; the proportion of adults who spend time volunteering each month is steadily increasing; people are energised about rebuilding their High Streets.
In the North East, the sight of power stations being transformed into huge battery gigafactories is a symbol of the power of business in revitalising local communities.
All of this matters because we will have to think imaginatively about how we centre community when the way we live is changing, when millions are rethinking how they work and where they live, and when companies like Facebook are staking on the future of the world as virtual.
Remembrance Day is a time to reflect on the lessons of the past and how they can carry us forward. During my time serving Afghanistan and Iraq, what I really learned was the value of community. Getting business, charity and the state work together to support communities is at the heart of what makes Britain prosper.