by John Clarke
The Grenfell Tower fire has shaken many aspects of the prevailing British political culture. Most strikingly for me, in the aftermath of the fire, Tottenham MP David Lammy gave an interview in which he argued that ‘people want the social back’. This is a potent image, but what might it mean? And what might be the implications for social policy? Lammy was pointing to the wilful erosion, if not eradication, of the social fabric of life in British cities — in particular, to the ways in which supportive social relationships were previously interwoven with, and sustained by, public services and the welfare state. How might we go about bringing the ‘social back’?
The sentiment that Lammy articulated was clearly not just a nostalgia for ‘community’, not least since it was precisely the community — embodied in a range of social networks, churches and other voluntary organisations — that formed the front line of support for the fire’s survivors. This happened, noticeably, in the absence of the local state, as Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council faded from view. Nor was it a call for the Cameron fantasy of the ‘Big Society’, since this was precisely one of the big ideas, along with austerity, that enabled the erosion of public services and welfare provision through the meretricious claim that the ‘big state’ had crowded out the community spirit and voluntary ethic.
And yet, neither should it be seen as a simple returning to the pre-1979 ‘golden age’ British welfare state. Lammy certainly saw the importance of public infrastructure and support for building dense social connections, talking about Tottenham in the 1970s and 1980s where ‘there was a proper civic society, we had a civic glue. A lot of that has gone’. And yet, despite the nostalgia, the ‘golden age’ of welfare statism was not quite so golden, especially in its Labourist form in the UK. The ‘universal’ welfare state was constantly contested over the limits and conditions of universality, around race/ethnicity, gender, disability and more. Its disciplinary character and its conditionality were also the focus of challenges. Tottenham in the 1970s was not immune to such divisions or to their contestation.
Rather, I want to suggest that we understand David Lammy’s statement as a call for a future ‘social’; an expanded and expansive ‘social’ built around social solidarities constructed in the face of diversity. Such solidarities need an infrastructure of local and national state services that provide support, promote a sense of social security and belonging, and enable individual and collective development. Above all, they demand forms of state that treat citizens, in whatever form they appear, with respect. As the local council’s policies and practices, underpinned by national political directions, made clear, the erosion of the social has involved denial, disdain and disenfranchisement on the part of public authorities.
Most of this is familiar to those who study social policy. Collectively, we have traced — for a very long time — the decline of the social, eroded through neoliberalism’s many anti-social projects, from the Thatcherite claim that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and there are families’, through decades of contracting out and selling off the public realm, to the more recent eviscerations from policies and practices driven by austerity talk. Connecting them is an underlying claim that ‘we can no longer afford’ these things. The Grenfell Tower fire has demonstrated just how the costs of not affording these things have been distributed — and why a public infrastructure for the social urgently needs to be reconstructed.
In the shadow of the Tower, we can now look back and see the loss of the social. What we have lost is marked in the abandonment of public housing and the denigration of its tenants, not only, if most obviously, in Kensington and Chelsea. We can feel it in the strained and straitened public services from schools to hospitals, wracked by endless programmes of reform but shorn of basic funding. It can be traced in the demonization of the poor and those dependent on welfare. We can see it in the wholesale degradation of the public realm, the wanton promotion of private interests, and the cynical fostering of social divisions.
But the shadow of the Tower also marks a combination of horror, revelation and possibility. The horror at the event itself has been combined with horror and revulsion at the conditions, practices and attitudes that the fire and its aftermath revealed. But it is also a moment of possibility: the possibility of anger, challenge, and contestation. Such reactions bring into view the potential for reconstruction; not just of the housing and lives of those shattered by the fire, but of the social itself. David Lammy is surely right and many of us now ‘want the social back’. The urgent challenge for social policy is to think about how to contribute to a project to build a future in which a new social can be realised.
John Clarke is an Emeritus Professor at the UK’s Open University and a Recurrent Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Hungary. Much of his work has explored the changing politics of welfare states, citizenship and public services. Click here to learn about his scholarly work.