It’s a funny thing, but the political rhetoric about families and family life is almost overwhelming. The rhetoric goes a long way beyond the policy, but there is policy too – directed towards the idea of encouraging traditional families, and by doing so strengthening the underpinnings of society.
This Conservative approach is usually criticised on the grounds that it fails to take account of all those non-traditional families, which have always existed – though possibly less so in the 1950s, which appears to provide the default dream of the right these days.
This is definitely the case, but there is another class of relationship which has been neglected by policy-makers and arguably has a greater impact on whatever it is that holds society together. Friendship.
Policy-makers understand community, up to a point, but what is a community without friends? And what both making friends and building community have in common is that the technocratic mind can’t quite grasp them. Because neither are possible to do directly.
You can’t just set out to make friends. You have to rub up against people doing something – another element which attracts the suspicions of technocrats – like football, or politics, or acting, or working. Then, hey presto! You have friends. It is a good example of what John Kay calls obliquity.
People without friends are said to be at as much risk of ill-health as heavy smokers. Friendship lies behind most enterprise, most social enterprise, most of the fine grain of sports and social clubs which used to be at the heart of the nation. Friendship lies behind people’s ability to recover from serious illness or accidents.
Yet it isn’t on the national curriculum. It isn’t an objective even of the Department of Communities, as far as I know.
Don’t get me wrong. The last thing we want is technocratic checklists marching all over people’s friendships. Friendship remains hugely unofficial, and it needs to stay that way.
But as our institutions assume increasingly that we are atomised individuals, and ignore the huge resource of friendship and what it can add to public services, I wish governments were at least aware of its importance – and aware that they could do more to encourage people to be actively engaged – and then, obliquely, make friends.
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