How do you create a “big society”?

A big song may not be a bad start.

Whether one thinks David Cameron's "big society" is hopelessly deluded or, as Ed Miliband put it, an attempt by the coalition government "to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society", few would disagree that the aim of "unleashing community engagement" is a worthy one.

I have an idea that may not have found its way into Tory plans, but perhaps it should. For if the "big society" is to mean anything, it has to be about more than just delivering local services such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing services in a different way -- important though that is. It also has to include the most ambitious target of all, which is to reverse the atomisation of our communities and to bring back some sense of belonging.

In other words: it needs to build social capital, as the former Labour adviser Andy Westwood conceded in a surprisingly fair-minded early response to Cameron's big idea that you can find here.

And it struck me that, quietly, and without being connected with any discussion of the "big society", one type of those "little platoons" Burke urged us to cherish has been showing its worth, in the concert hall, on the much-mocked (mostly justly mocked) format of reality television, and in real communities. I'm talking about choirs.

Real people sing Bach

Who provided a large number of the singers for Mahler's 8th, which opened the Proms last week? Not a group of highly paid professional singers, but the amateurs of the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Where on Sunday night could you see people of all different sizes, ages and races come together and give up their spare time to rehearse and then perform, both for their pleasure and for that of others? On Don't Stop Believing, Channel 5's show inspired by the success of US TV's Glee. And what was it that brought "a real sense of pride", according to a local teacher, to South Oxhey, a large, despondent and divided housing estate outside Watford? The community choirs, assembled by Gareth Malone, a tireless and inspirational chorusmaster featured in The Choir: Unsung Town and several other BBC series.

This will be no surprise to anyone who has spent much time singing in one; and I write as someone who did so for ten years, including, for five, in either the crypt or the nave of Canterbury Cathedral every Sunday. But that example should not be taken as typical.

In fact, the ones I mentioned above are far better models for choirs or choruses that bring communities or groups together. For, contrary to their slightly elitist image -- ordinary people singing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, imagine! -- the truth is that the chorus is one of the most powerfully egalitarian of institutions.

Unlike in sport, individual success does not require that others should fail (the only competition is to maintain or exceed the standard of performance). And unlike team sports, in which individual effort is noted, rated and judged, the chorus is one.

A footballer may be tempted to take a risky shot at a goal to further his own glory. A singer in a chorus whose voice can be heard amid the throng is doing something wrong; his or her role is to serve and combine in the greater group.

Indeed, it is precisely because of this melding of the many into one that it does not matter all that much if individual members of a chorus have particularly good voices. The embarrassment that leads many men in particular to claim that they can't sing, or to pretend they can only do so in a basso profundo monotone growl (both nonsense -- being genuinely tone-deaf or lacking at least the baritone range of a Frank Sinatra, in my experience, are extremely rare), swiftly disappears when singular imperfections are masked by a greater whole, affording singers the liberty to enjoy the most uplifting of forms of self-expression.

There is a reason why many mining pits used to have male voice choirs and why all religions employ singing as part of their devotions. The eastern bloc countries were very aware of the power of music -- remember the Red Army Band and Chorus? But we have lost, or become shy of, one of the oldest and most bonding of human traditions.

Generous helping

It is a paradox that instances of singing -- such as bellowing out a hymn as part of the daily act of worship schools were meant to provide under the Butler Education Act 1944 -- came to be seen not as acts that enhanced esprit de corps or group solidarity, but as anachronistic, paternalistic examples of repression or religious indoctrination. Try telling that to any group of people who have just sung "Jerusalem", whether at a funeral (as I have done twice in the past few weeks, at those for Sebastian Horsley and Beryl Bainbridge) or at a football match. They know better.

This suggestion may seem frivolous to some, perhaps, or a distraction from the cuts whose effects the "big society" is expected to ameliorate. But if the term is to represent anything real, if individuals are to think more generously about others than concentrating selfishly only on their own "rights", something has to bring them together.

It will not, I think, be through the works of Philip Blond and Robert Putnam suddenly becoming bestsellers that a greater sense of cohesion and mutual obligation will come about. If, however, different people from across an area meet regularly in a common endeavour, they are surely less likely to walk on by or to ignore the problems faced by others, hitherto unknown, who have through this experience become neighbours -- a notion of which our frightened, unfriendly cities, whose dwellers barricade themselves in at home behind triple locks and bars, are in desperate need.

A choir may be only one example of such an endeavour, but it is a good example, and one that deserves the encouragement and support of the Departments of Culture and Education. I would urge anyone who still thinks I'm being foolish, facetious or fatuous in suggesting it to look up any series of BBC2's The Choir, and the third in particular.

Yes, it was a reality TV show. But I'm willing to bet that it brought more joy, hope and sense of community to a run-down, depressing area than any government initiative or grant has in the whole of South Oxhey's existence.

No one knows exactly how to create a "big society". But a big song might not be a bad start.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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