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May 4, 2011

The need to feel connected – as strong as ever

Current trends and recent research point to a rapid rise in numbers of people living alone (a fifth of households by 2030), loneliness becoming a major social issue and most modern Britons experiencing little or no community life.  As a counterweight to this gloomy picture, Henry Hemming in his book Together, argues that we may just be looking in the wrong place. He thinks our sense of community is as strong as ever – it’s just different from what it used to be

On the same May day in 2005 that US businessman Malcolm Glazer completed his takeover of Manchester United, a group of disgruntled fans met up in the city for a curry. Across the table they discussed a vague idea to set up a breakaway football club, run as a co-operative, in protest at what they saw as the loss of “their” club. By the end of the night the plan must have sounded fantastic.

Two months after leaving that curry-house, FC United of Manchester played its first match and, despite the fact that they failed to score, the players were carried off the pitch by a sea of jubilant supporters. No one owned the club, no one got paid and everyone involved was a volunteer, from the stewards to the people making the pies spectators bought at half-time. This season, they made it to the second round of the FA Cup.

This club of self-selected volunteers is just one of thousands of small groups, associations and societies who meet week in, week out across the UK, gathering in small communities that are not defined by who lives next door or across the street.

Yet, in 2008, a rash of gloomy newspaper headlines about “lonely Britain” greeted a report commissioned by the BBC from researchers at Sheffield university. “Changing UK” argued that one-quarter of people in Britain were “lonely”, a result of a more “atomised” society. In their bestselling book The Spirit Level (2009), authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that modern Britons experience “little or no community life.” Conclusions such as these rely too heavily on the indisputable fact that many of us are indeed less connected than previous generations to our neighbourhoods. But this does not mean that people’s sense of community, of belonging, has been lost entirely – it merely comes from many different sources. The members of FC United were not neighbours, yet they formed a vibrant community with a sense of identity and fellowship.

The same goes for a mass of small groups in Britain today, be they bridge clubs, women’s institutes, reading groups, home-schoolers or any number of gatherings dedicated to specialist interests. There are knitters and quilters; doll’s house builders and Dutch rabbit fanciers; fancy rat breeders, fuchsia lovers and devoted restorers of elderly camper vans. In 2008 the National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimated the existence of 900,000 civil society groups.

Yet we hear very little about these groups other than perhaps the noisier political-protest ones. The 2011 national census that is being taken later this month will provide plenty of data that will renew debate about lonely, atomised Britain. Meanwhile, groups of people across the country will be quietly meeting, just as they did the week before. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “If men are to remain civilised or to become civilised, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads.”

Henry Hemming is the author of ‘Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things’ (John Murray)