There was a certain irony in the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s poorly thought out invitation to implement portions of Islamic law in Britain provoked such a united display of condemnation. In a country which is supposedly so conspicuously lacking a shared culture, we saw secular liberals, conservative pundits, briefly united political parties and the general public of every faith and none joining together to make the simple cry: one law for all. We might all differ wildly on what that law should be, but on that – at least – we all seem to be in agreement, the Archbishop notwithstanding.
Reach a little wider and the consensus falls apart. Newspapers make great hay out of the evils of ‘political correctness’, which apparently has been waging unceasing war on such things as heterosexuality, the English language and Christmas. I can’t say I’d noticed a conspicuous shortage, but there you are. Outside the pages of tabloids there is some more serious questioning of multiculturalism, although I have to say I still think it’s a conversation largely between journalists and politicians. Nevertheless, issues surrounding how far we accommodate different cultures and\or whether we have – or need – a national common identity are real enough, even if the answers so far have been limited to bizarrely silly plans for a few more flags, ceremonies and mottos.
I believe in multiculturalism, and it doesn’t particularly concern me whether people identity with abstract notions of what it means to be British. As far as I’m concerned, you can listen to whatever music you want, support whatever football team you want and even speak whatever language you want as long as you don’t interfere with other people’s rights to do the same. Nevertheless, I do think that an important part of the answer for more cohesive communities lies in a very simple idea: shared spaces. This isn’t a tired debate on the merits of public versus private ownership, for almost everyone agrees that in-between our private houses, private workplaces and private leisure facilities there will always exist a little communal space which we all have to use.
Without wanting to bore anyone about the London mayoral elections (full disclaimer: I’ve campaigned for Ken Livingstone) the example of London’s transport system is a strong one. London is the only major city in the world to have achieved a notable shift from private to public transport in recent years, and I believe that this is important for more than purely the environmental benefits. Take the buses. There will always be a core of people who have no choice but to travel by bus, but if buses become a genuinely shared space – the poor and dispossessed travelling alongside the rich and comfortable – then there will be both the money and the political pressure to improve services for everyone. It’s not a hopeless fantasy: people from every different walk of life already use the Tube to get to work.
It’s the same for state education and healthcare. A number of people have claimed to me that by going private they’re actually doing the state a favour: that’s one fewer hospital bed or school place for the state to find, they argue. But this ignores the value of maintaining shared public spaces. First, because those who can afford to go privately are often the ones who will be most vocal in demanding and effecting change in the public sector. And secondly, because shared spaces are also a shared national culture which isn’t imposed on top of communities but develops organically from their equal participation. Rather than wasting time on the abstract – the flags, the pledges – we should encourage a country which forms its own identity from real things, like children learning together in shared schools.
You can’t force people to use shared spaces, and you shouldn’t have to. No-one should take the bus or use the NHS with a haughty sense of martyrdom: they should be high quality services which are attractive in their own right. And the danger of abandonment always looms large with shared spaces: think of a housing block, neglected and unloved after the initial political optimism in building it has long faded away. But there will always be people left behind after others have escaped – and there will always be people on the bus. If we invest in these services and design them to be used by everyone, then I believe we will gain not just improved public spaces but an improved public spirit too.
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