The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

The Waning of the Common Life

Those of us who lament the loss of the common life are often accused of wanting a better yesterday. This is untrue. We want a better tomorrow and believe it depends - almost entirely - on what we can still do together.

By: William Clouston

The common life in Britain has been on the wane for over half a century and may, if we’re not careful, be finally killed off by the pandemic.

British people used to live, work, worship, drink, eat, and travel together, but now they increasingly do so alone. This development underpins the phenomenon of modern alienation and isolation, which has led to an increasingly unhappy and unharmonious nation. In virtually all walks of life, activities which we once undertook communally with friends, associates, or in family groups are now done alone and in private. Where we once shared we now hoard, what was proximate is now remote, and what was experienced in common is now encountered alone.

The first victim of our war against the COVID-19 pandemic was communal office life. The closure of workplaces is merely the latest example of the doors being closed on our life in common. We used to live together; often in extended families, or as lodgers, or in houses in multiple occupancy. Now we seem to aspire to be like the Swedes and enjoy total privacy in our studios or one bedroom flats. That the public washhouse, which convened entire neighbourhoods in Victorian and Edwardian times, gave way to the private bathroom was undoubtedly progress. However, the family bathroom is now itself giving way to a modern fetish for ensuite bathrooms which are, weirdly, often furnished with two separate ‘his and her’ wash basins. Why it is beyond some contemporary couples to share something as trivial as a sink is a matter for the psychologist. What’s next? His and her beds or houses? 

Gone are the packed matinees on a Saturday afternoon – now replaced by people staying indoors, breathing stale air and gazing at screens all hours of the day. We’re entering the age of private cinema as surely as we are the private gym. What was a grand shared experience has become a narrower private one. Even sex, the data shows, is becoming a private matter. The ubiquity of pornography is making the old joke ‘sex is ok, but I prefer the real thing’ a reality. Perhaps this provides a clue as to why Britain’s Total Fertility Rate has plummeted well below replacement level – which if it continues will eventually result in the country simply fading away. Those who govern us are indifferent to this and to its impact on our culture, preferring instead to simply import new human ‘commodities.’

And then there’s the loss of our pubs. With each pub closure, part of the fabric of British society is diminished. It removes from the public scene a forum of warmth, open debate, friendship, and possible sanctuary. Inns have also played a vital role in establishing and reinforcing our embedded rights for pubs, which have made a greater contribution to the development of English democracy than is generally realised. Genuine free speech and the ventilation of unpalatable facts must occur face to face rather than via some dreadful app. The making of a political point in a pub requires one to be able to justify it, the cowardice of an anonymous persona being unavailable. Pubs are certainly closer to the spirit of the Athenian Stoa than Twitter. Dr Johnson was surely right when he wrote in 1776 that there ‘is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves so well as a capital tavern’. Drinking at home alone is simply no replacement – and is probably worse for general public health.

Remember when children used to walk to school? Now they are shuttled in private cars which competitively fly-park at the school gates. Gone is the walk to school in the fresh air, now rendered impossible in many localities due to noxious car fumes. And what about school dinners? Lunchtimes which used to be experienced – or suffered – in common with liver in gravy on Wednesday and fish on Friday are now replaced by pupils grazing informally from their own lunchboxes on a diet of Kit Kats, Coke, and crisps. A preoccupation with personal choice combined with dietary, allergen, and religious requirements are making the school meal, cooked in the kitchen from basic ingredients and eaten together, a thing of the past. To suggest its reinstatement would, of course, be seen as a rights violation.

As the pandemic ratchets-up further, shop closures contribute to the destruction of the high street, another arena which affords social interaction and human proximity. The city, town, or village centre is the quintessential social hub. The queue at the baker, the butcher; or more frequently the Post Office, is a necessary curative to modern impatience. The town centre is where we interact and see what one and other is doing out in the elements. The shift to soulless online retail – which affords no chit chat about the weather, no gossip, no eye to eye contact – seems unstoppable. As these powerful online monopolies demonstrate ever greater strength year after year, our liberal political class shows increasing indifference to resist them. 

Most Sunday mornings I cycle to one of a number of favourite churches in the Northumberland hinterland (St Michael’s at Warden, St John’s at Healey, St Giles at Chollerton.) Apart from the odd occasion in which the rural service rota provides an itinerant Anglican priest, they are empty. As I sit alone and survey the stained glass, empty choir stalls, and brass plaques with the names of members of the important local families; I ponder buildings which were not just places of belief, but were places of comradeship and belonging. I think it unlikely that the parishioners will return.

Those of us who lament the loss of the common life are often accused of wanting a better yesterday. This is untrue. We want a better tomorrow and believe it depends – almost entirely – on what we can still do together.

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All Comments (14)

  • As a 58yr old,I completely agree with the statement. I’ve raised 5 children and am raising grandchildren,but am called “ancient and not understanding of the world we live in ” because I cook,make them tidy up etc. And don’t allow TVs except for school.

  • I particularly lament the loss of the highstreet shop
    This community issue appeared several years ago with the traditional highstreet bank and the introduction of cash machines.
    I remember talking to a bank manager in a pub in Hartlepool on a Friday evening in 1988 and his comments were so true that he percieved that bank branches would close and the customer would loose contact with the sense of belonging to a bank knowing the staff on the counter and the bank manager .

  • Thank you William. Reading this makes me feel very sad concerning the future world. I am not a very sociable person but I miss communal experiences like the cinema and cafes. A world of alienation and loneliness beckons

  • Sadly, very true. No wonder there is an increase in mental illness and loneliness.
    When the restrictions are over, we should share more, spend more in local shops, appreciate our pubs, churches and cinemas more.
    The loss of banks and post offices from our towns should have been resisted vehemently. The government actually exacerbated the closure of post offices by paying benefits and pensions directly into bank accounts.
    Humans are social creatures. We must fight not to lose our sociability.

  • Valid points about a sad, sad situation, and decline in quality of life, that I fear will get much worse.

  • Life in Britain is steadily being sterilised, covid has now speeded up the process. We have more communication and information at our fingertips than ever before, yet never have we been more polarised.

  • As a founding member of the SDP I am at once disconcerted and at the same time strangely comforted by this. But I suspect this may be an age thing (I am 58). Much of the above seems like nostalgia (comfort) and to rejoin the SDP I would need to see more about how you reconcile the undoubted human progress we have seen and the (perhaps) retrograde evolution in social standards. We are certainly in a different world from 1983 when I joined, so the SDP should be helping people to come to terms with the new world rather than hankering after one that we 50 somethings enjoyed 30 years ago. Our children and grandchildren need that type of direction not nostalgia.

    • Why would you want to help “people to come to terms with the new world” when our increasingly atomised society leads to so much unhappiness and friction? If we help “people to come to terms with the new world” this means participating in a collective amnesia of our social nature. Perhaps you meant that we should help people to nurture new types of common life and that you will be interested to read what the SDP comes up with?

      Highlighting the more socially beneficial aspects of common life from the past is not nostalgia, it is a starting point from which we hope to work out how to replicate those positive social outcomes, but in a new context. This isn’t easy, as the time and location points at which humans can interact face-to-face are being reduced (see the article above).

  • A very interesting and hard hitting article. So much of what was common to me growing up in the sixties has now gone. Another community asset that bonded us was council housing, where we knew our neighbours and looked out for each other. Also gone is the neighbourhood policeman. There was a policeman who lived in a police house and patrolled and knew the locality. He knew all the villains and there was a healthy respect shown and reciprocated.
    Uncontrolled immigration helped to destroy a lot of the fabric of society as newcomers came in and long established families moved out.

  • Excellent commentary William that sums up perfectly the malaise of contemporary Britain. What is needed is a cultural renewal that emphasises the importance of community responsibility and responsible citizenship. Instead of the current focus on young people being vacuous selfish celebrities they should be responsible citizens. To do this we need to stop exporting jobs to cheap countries and reinstitute an apprenticeship scheme for British citizens. To take inspiration from the past to ensure a cultural renewal is badly needed.

  • Maybe the sdp should back unlock Democracy’s campaign for a written constitution and even become a Federal republic with decentralisation of Government, We need to protect our high street from parasitic corporations like Amazon

  • Nailed it… you need to get this out there by getting a shed more exposure… once again William is bang on with every point made… the most ironic thing is it’s what everyone is seeing and thinking…. it’s not to late. Just perhaps we might have a man & a party to finally put a fight up against the others parties… do not waver from the theme you have set out William. Loved every sentence and paragraph even though it’s so sad hearing the truth.

  • Also the spontaneity of attending professional sport has been removed. At one time you could queue at the gates for Test Match cricket and pay a reasonable price for admittance.You could take your own alcohol into the game without having to pay ridiculous amounts for a pint. Safetyism is an excuse for maximising revenue. The same with top flight football,all games are all ticket,with no standing. Football tragedies such as Hillsborough have been made an excuse for maximising revenue. No longer can you just attend on a whim,everything has to be preplanned . The result is you have half a crowd of rich idiots absolutely plastered dressed up as nuns at the Test Match. Futhermore terrestial TV doesnt show Test cricket live in this country.
    All our school fields are fenced off ,over safety /trespass/paedophile and dog dirt fears. Kids (and groups of adults) used to play on the school cricket square out of school hours! And football.
    I would hope your party would reopen the school fields like they used to be and eradicate safetyism to this degree. Get communities back together keeping fit and do something to make professional sport accessible to all.

Family, Community, Nation.