We are told our society is ‘broken’, we know our economy is in recession and it feels like our democracy is falling apart at the seams. So, now is the time for me to point out some things that have got better. Not the kind of big ticket public service targets the Government will want to boast about, nor simply the consequence of increasing affluence, but more subtle changes that are worth celebrating partly because they make us feel better but also because they help us to understand how progress happens.
I spotted the first when running in the Great Manchester Run on Sunday. This year there were 33,000 runners, up from 31,000 last year and a high proportion were running for charity. There must have been at least twice that number out lining the course cheering on their relatives and friends.
I don’t know the exact history or statistics (although I’d love to hear from anyone who does) but my recollection is that these kinds of mass events only really started when the London Marathon kicked off popular distance running in 1981. Now, taking into account the Marathon, the Great North Run and all the other events like Manchester, there must be upwards of half a million people a year setting out to meet their own personal target bolstered by the efforts of fellow runners and spectators. And you can add to that the growing popularity of distance cycling, swimathons and, for the super fit, triathlons.
But it isn’t just running that we are doing more of together. We are just about to embark on the summer festival season. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages will be getting out their wellington boots, tents and sun block. And for the more sedate and cerebral there is the explosion in public lectures and debates (a phenomenon of which the RSA can proudly feel part).
Finally, different but equally positive - go to almost any large town or city in the UK and they will be able to point you to young people involved in local decision making. There are local youth Parliaments, youth Mayors and the Youth Opportunity Fund, through which young people themselves decide how to spend grants for young people’s activities. Given what they are seeing in Westminster these young people may not decide to get involved in formal politics, but from very little happening a decade ago, there are now tens of thousands of young people up and down the UK involved in debate and real decision making.
Give people the opportunity to do stuff together, make it challenging, fun and purposeful and look what can happen. We spend so much time breast beating about the state of society, and having learned debates about civic capacity and social capital (yes, I know I can talk!) but meanwhile a new collective spirit is emerging in fun runs, country fields and youth councils.