Social solidarity after social isolation

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


At the height of the pandemic lockdowns, much was made of the spirit of solidarity shown by the British public. While comparisons to the ‘Blitz Spirit’ were often made, the reality was more complicated.

For many, the idea of being ‘all in this together’ contrasted with widespread loneliness, a growing sense of frustration and a prolonged period of demoralisation. Throughout history, crises have forged new coalitions and prompted social change. As the threat of the pandemic recedes, many are asking what the legacy of this strange period will be – a period where the mark of a good citizen was to stay away from other people.

Few would deny that there were many inspiring moments. The famous ‘clap for carers’ saw millions on their doorsteps. A call for NHS volunteers was met with an avalanche of applications. Since then, many thousands more have volunteered to help with the vaccine rollout, countless mutual aid societies have been formed and many neighbourhoods have formed tighter bonds.

Yet at the same time, the paradoxes of our age revealed themselves. Mutual aid groups co-existed with curtain-twitchers reporting how many walks their neighbours had taken; local authorities were zealously breaking up gatherings while promoting alfresco dining in town centres. What’s more, no one seemed to know what to do with the ‘army’ of NHS volunteers.

What explains these contradictions? Many argue that the ‘decline of community’ long predates the pandemic: with people getting richer, they tend to pay for services rather than relying on neighbours. Others point to the strangulation of public life through the use of Public Space Protection Orders and ASBOs. Perhaps decades of privatisation have sapped the resources and goodwill from communities.

Yet, despite these deeper trends, lockdowns themselves have certainly had an effect. Perhaps fundamentally, there seemed an irresolvable contradiction: lockdowns, which isolated people in their homes, seems at odd with solidarity, which brings people together. Masks, to take one example, can be seen as both a positive, pro-social attempt to keep others safe or as an isolating, alienating garment that says, ‘stay away’. Similarly, the unprecedently high take-up of the vaccine reflected the desire of people to protect their loved ones and reduce the pressure on the NHS – but many have felt the threat of vaccine passports amounts to little better than blackmail.

Whatever the post-pandemic period is to bring, it is clear that the aspiration towards solidarity remains strong. The scenes of jubilation and exuberance displayed during England’s Euro 2020 run were seen as an expression of a desire to be part of something together. What’s more, however hollow Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is accused of being, it seems that it represents a widespread desire to restore a sense of civic pride and community engagement.

Are there figures willing and able to define what solidarity means today? After a long period of isolation, what will remain of traditional avenues of solidarity, from pubs to sports? Has the experience of the past two years forged new bonds or entrenched a growing sense of isolation? What, ultimately, does solidarity mean today?

Paul Embery
firefighter; trade unionist; columnist; author; broadcaster

Inaya Folarin Iman
GB News journalist; political commentator; social campaigner; founder and director, The Equiano Project

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there; presenter, A Narrative History of Secrecy

Lord Moylan
conservative peer

Jacob Reynolds
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas