A few months after I started at the RSA there was extensive media coverage of the excellent report of its Drugs Commission. This ended what had been quite a barren period in terms of press coverage, with some really good work by the Society – for example, on migration – not getting anything like the profile it deserved.
In the last couple of years RSA coverage in the national media has started to pick up gently and this week may have been the best in the Society’s recent history. Not only was there the broadcast and print reporting of the 2020 Public Services Commission’s final report, but today we have bagged the front page of Guardian Society with our Connected Communities project.
Rachel Williams has done a great job in summarising the key features of the report and developing the human interest angel around a popular local publican and quizmaster (the fact that he is called Phil Nice does help!). I feel rather embarrassed that most of the quotes in the piece are from me rather than the team who undertook the research, but knowing how modest they all are I don’t suppose they’ll care too much.
We have always seen the second year of the Connected Communities project as the most innovative and exciting. This is when we play back the social network analysis to the community in New Cross and explore how local people can develop, strengthen and exploit their links. So let’s hope this time next year we get even more attention to the final report.
While I’m blowing my own trumpet (and, yes I know this is the unspoken opening clause to almost every sentence I write), Radio Four is tonight broadcasting a short lecture by me on the sixties. I wrote it over my summer holiday and although I am a little nervous about its personal reminiscences, I was pleased to be able to weave the RSA into my critique of the sixties idea of freedom.
The 2020 report contained many references to other RSA work, not just Connected Communities, but Peterborough too. It was good to see the Big Society minister Lord Wei say positive things about the RSA on his blog the other day. And, as I say, I was without contrivance able to weave the RSA’s work into broader reflection on British social history.
Overall, it feels like things are coming together. The RSA has always had great strengths – not least of which is its amazing Fellowship – but it has tended to suffer from a lack of understanding about its core mission and focus and limited public awareness of its work. Without, I hope, being complacent, it is really heartening to see this changing.
It is a new era. As regular readers will know, I have been told to keep political commentary to a minimum on this site but as it feels like a turning point for me too maybe I can be excused one more time.
Despite my own personal political affiliations it is difficult not to be excited by the idea of coalition government. After all this had been Tony Blair’s plan if he had faced a much smaller majority in 1997 – rather negotiate with Liberal Democrats than be in hoc to Labour’s left wing.
My instinct is that either things will go wrong very quickly for the coalition or they will, as the ruling Parties hope, last a full Parliament. This will depend on events, personalities and, as I argued on Monday, the relationship between leaders who want to stay in power and MPs and activists who may find the compromises of office very uncomfortable.
In terms of our political culture an important question will be how the LibDems and Tories handle their differences. If they are willing to be reasonably frank about them and invite the public to engage in the debate, we really could see a more open and elevating type of politics. If, however, the debates are suppressed only to emerge in hostile press briefings, then the standing of our representative democracy could fall further still. The Osborne Cable pairing will be particularly fascinating in this regard. In many ways, it reminds me of the ill starred welfare reform partnership of Harriet Harman and Frank Field between 1997 and 1998 – let’s hope it does a great deal better.
As for me this is the time to hang up my boots as a pundit and occasional political advisor (out of working hours I hasten to add). It will be interesting to observe the Labour leadership contest and David Miliband will hope history repeats itself (in leadership elections the person who starts favourite for Labour usually wins while Tory favourites usually lose). The one bit of advice I would give to all the contenders is politely to distance themselves from the New Labour old guard, whether that is big beasts like Campbell and Mandelson or small fry like yours truly.
As for the RSA I believe we are entering a really exciting period. Our non-aligned political position is not only in keeping with our traditions but just right for the times. At our Trustees meeting yesterday we had excellent presentations on our Peterborough and Connected Communities projects. The RSA doesn’t just talk about the Big Society – we are doing the thinking and innovation that aims to make community renewal and deeper civic engagement real.
So it’s kind of poignant to look back across the whole cycle, starting with my first canvassing session – for Douglas Jay (who had himself been MP for Battersea North for over 30 years) in the 1979 election, through the 18 years of opposition and then the 13 years of Labour government and back out again. But one of the lessons of all that time has been that real enduring social change is as likely to start from outside Government as from the plans of politicians. I don’t know how the coalition government will do but I am certain the RSA is going to make a big impact in the years ahead.
If public agencies are to improve service outcomes in the difficult years ahead they will need to forge a different type of relationship with citizens. This is one of the assumptions behind the partnership. The project aims to develop a debate at many levels about the future for Peterborough and its residents, showing that the way people live and how they engage with decision makers is crucial to the health and prosperity of the city. As a reflection of this belief, the project has an ‘open source’ design with citizens able to make any input they wish as it unfolds.
Having arts and culture at the heart of the partnership will, we hope, be an important source of innovation. Socially engaged arts and culture can play a major role in breaking down social barriers, mobilising and enthusing people, and firing the collective imagination of the city.
The project will also engage with the shape and form of front line public services. For example, there is a programme to develop a recovery community for problem drug users. We are also seeking to build on a pilot project in Manchester to develop what we are calling ‘an area based curriculum’ through which schools and the community work together to foster a wider culture of learning.
Peterborough is a successful city in many ways and far from the most socially and economically deprived. However levels of trust, engagement and attachment to place are lower than average and problems like crime and drug use higher. These problems often get worse when population rises take place and the Peterborough population is set to grow by about 20,000 over the next decade.
Peterborough leaders share with the RSA the view that we need to cultivate a more ambitious model of citizenship – more engaged, more self-reliant, more pro-social – and that this needs to be done, in part, through the development of a stronger sense of identity and attachment. At its heart this project seeks to answer a question I have often posed before: what kind of people do we need to be to create the better future we want?