What unites and divides us in Britain today? That has been the question posed by the Talk/Together exercise – in which 160,000 Brits took part – to talk about how we reconnect our society when we emerge from lockdown.
If you had asked people, before any of us had heard of Covid, how our society would respond to a global pandemic, many might have been pessimistic. Britain began last year with a widespread sense that this was a more polarised and anxious society than any of us would want. Yet societies can respond to extraordinary pressure with more resilience than disaster movie images would suggest. That has been Britain’s experience over the last 12 months. The pandemic has brought a tragic death toll – and worries about what happens when we emerge from it, from education and the economy to mental health. But we leave behind this most difficult of years with a broad sense that society will emerge from lockdown, on balance, a little stronger than when we entered it.

Talk/Together’s report, Our Chance to Reconnect, finds that most of us feel that our society pulled together, not apart, during the Covid pandemic. Twice as many people feel that our response to the crisis has shown the unity of our society more than its divides. Through a period of such upheaval the national mood was volatile, with people feeling most pessimistic in October when the response to the pandemic divided north and south most sharply. But there is a strong sense of greater local connection to neighbours and local communities. Twelve million people stepped up to help others during the pandemic, a third volunteering for the first time, many from groups less likely to volunteer. Most want to carry on – a potential resource to harness beyond Covid.

Nobody would call lockdown popular. We have all felt the frustrations of being cooped up for so long. Yet the Covid restrictions had broader public support than more or less anything that governments have done in the last half-century.  Any ‘culture war’ was a fringe affair. The rollout of the vaccine provides grounds for optimism that the roadmap out of lockdown can stay on track this time. There is also increasing evidence that proactive, practical outreach can overcome the challenges of vaccine hesitancy, with evidence of pro-vaccine sentiment rising significantly across all groups.

What happens next? The purpose of this research was not just to capture an authoritative snapshot of how people think about social divisions – but to provide a foundation for concerted efforts to bridge them.

The public feels that this is a crossroads moment. The appetite to keep the gains, not just the pain, of Covid is broad. The jury is out on whether it will happen. One third of people fear we have got used to keeping apart, so will be more distant in future. Another third think things will broadly go back to how they were before. And a third are more confident that this experience could be a platform for sustained efforts towards a more connected society.

Our sense of what might divide us after Covid is shifting too.

The intensity of our Brexit divides is finally fading. A quarter of people – 13 per cent Remain and 12 per cent Leave – still say their primary political identity revolves around the referendum held five years ago. Twice as many hold a political identity defined by a party or cause. And all of the political tribes are smaller than the fifth of people who do not identify with any party or cause.

Divides between the rich and the poor are the public’s biggest concern about future divisions. So “levelling up” resonates – especially on inequalities by geography. It is less clear, as another study from Kings College London finds, that we have a consensus on how to address them.

Race is increasingly salient in British society. The expectation that the anti-racism protests of 2020 will lead to significant change is strongly held by many younger people across ethnic groups, not just among ethnic minorities. But there are different views on how to advance race equality while being fair to everybody – and widespread concern about how toxic discussions of race can become online.

In Scotland, six out of ten people worry about how the debate on independence is handled. The shared sentiment across political tribes is that big democratic arguments need to involve more civility and respect – with the cyber-warriors of each camp often seen to undermine the cause they purport to represent.

Without action to address the causes of social fragmentation, calls for unity will struggle to preach beyond the comfortably converted.

The Talk/Together research, published by the Together Coalition, also highlights an unmet public appetite for more moments when we are encouraged to connect. While only three per cent of people think of themselves as likely to initiate a street party or local event where they live, the majority would be interested in either lending a hand, or at least turning up once it was happening.

As we prepare to emerge from lockdown, we have a chance to reconnect. Which path we take at the crossroads is not a matter for political leaders alone. It will depend on how the civic and public appetite for personal connection can be harnessed too.

Sunder Katwala is Director of the identity and integration think-tank, British Future.