Craig Dearden-Phillips MBE is Founder of Social Club and a Trustee of Social and Sustainable Capital charitable trust. Sir Norman Lamb is Chair of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and a former Minister of State for Health.
The forthcoming recession is a well-understood fact. You don’t need to be an economist to know what recession means for the most vulnerable during the 2020s.
Read your Michael Marmot. Poverty kills – and it will probably kill many more people than Covid-19 in the end.
We also have a real worry that the impact on the voluntary and community sectors will be so profound that our social settlement may become vulnerable in the coming years. We see the plight of the big charities, who predict a 48 per cent drop in revenue this year. A few won’t be missed, but many leave huge holes in the social fabric.
But more profoundly, we fear the damage to the ‘little platoons’, the smaller organisations spoken of by conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. These generate the social capital that keep the show on the road in complex, fragmented, diverse societies like our own.
Should we be scared? Yes, we ought. Community organisation is known to suffer in hard times. In all places, and at all times, recession and worklessness dissolves social connection. Even short periods of unemployment damage well-being and families for an enduring period. With nearly a million new registrants for Universal Credit over recent weeks, we have reason to fear for the social fabric.
A hidden opportunity – in plain view
But what, we hear you say, about the 750,000 NHS volunteers? The street-led efforts to feed and protect the vulnerable? Are we not, you might ask, entering some kind of new era in which we are truly ‘all in it together’ – the Big Society finally made real?
Our view is that all of this represents a huge opportunity. But only that. In Britain, we are magnificent in a crisis. Yet this won’t magically continue once this is over. The reserves of social capital that have been generated in recent weeks will need themselves to be ‘institutionalised’ as the coronavirus crisis retreats into social history. Without this, voluntarism will ebb away as normality aggressively restores itself.
What do we mean by ‘institutionalised’? What we have seen in recent weeks is extraordinary action by both the state and civil society. The catalyst to the 750,000 has been the NHS which, despite its shortcomings, is probably the finest expression of social capital that this country has created in peacetime. The question is, how do we capture this?
The political class has a critical role here. Traditional conservatism sees little role for the state in institutionalising the efforts of civil society. Indeed, there is a fear that state action displaces such efforts, thereby weakening the fabric of society.
Recent weeks have shown this is for the birds. There is an opportunity right in front of us to bring civic action and the State into a mutually supportive embrace.
Look at the health and care system. The NHS is severely hampered by also being the ‘provider of last resort’ for the frail, the isolated, the mentally unwell. Those society isn’t looking after. Yet we know from Marmot that 90 per cent of our health is socially determined. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, insists that isolation is just as harmful to human health as smoking cigarettes.
We have in front of us an opportunity, in the 750,000, both to keep the NHS for its intended purpose (to heal us when we are extremely sick) and to also heal our society. So what needs to happen? Three things.
Make ‘NHS Volunteers’ Permanent
‘NHS’ volunteers need mainstreamed into the wider health, care mand charitable system to augment the contributions of paid health and care staff. In the difficult years ahead there will never be enough paid staff in public services and charities for there to be a risk of their displacement.
Introduce ‘National Voluntary Service’
This done, volunteering needs to be institutionalised to something on a level with National Service. We should all be expected to volunteer for two hours a week as part of our contribution to society. National Voluntary Service should be as integral to the British way of life as paying our tax or obeying the law: all of us have a role outside of our job and family life that is about enriching the lives of others beyond our families. We all do it: MPs and celebrities, bankers and bakers.
Does this create compulsion not voluntarism? No, because we ultimately can’t force it, in a free society. Just as we couldn’t truly enforce the lockdown as they do in the police-states. But we are social beings and, as behavioural science shows, we tend to follow norms and seek social validation. What is required now is a huge ‘nudge’ to volunteer!
While our primary concern is that business cracks on with its day job of wealth-creation once this is over, we we can’t let it end there. Business depends, for its long-term well-being, on a stable and healthy society.
There is a new generation of leaders in business who already understand this and act accordingly, giving their employees time and space to make contributions to society in time set aside for work. Economic and Social Governance (ESG) scores for companies were already becoming business-critical before the Covid-19 crisis.
Now it will surely be incumbent on all companies to give a clear account of their social benefit, as is normal in Germany and other countries where the social contract between companies and society is already strong. This doesn’t mean we have to replace ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism with something more like the ‘Mittelstrand’ – but it does mean we have, after a crisis in which businesses have been helped as never before, to rebuild society’s settlement with business.
It’s Now or Never
We now stand at a crossroads as a society. Post-coronavirus we face a ‘second war’, which will be more like a long guerrilla campaign for the life and soul of our society. Sit back, and this will quickly be lost. Act now to build the resilience of our society in the face of the coming economic storm and we can create the kind of society in which that conservatives. liberal and socialists alike can take pride.