Through the of focus groups, the 25% project was an excellent opportunity to engage with a key subsection of civil society, young people. What was particularly heartening was their acute awareness of the state of society. More specifically, their insight into the tensions and divisions they perceive in their communities; London is incredibly diverse, yet not very cohesive. In short there’s a lack of solidarity. Thus, the focus groups acted as a barometer, as it were, of the state of contemporary London.
The most memorable of the discussions was with regard to social cohesion, encompassing identity, barriers to integration and values; a discussion most pertinent, in the light of the fractures in British society highlighted by Brexit.
The failure to eradicate racialism- the idea that human beings can be divided into biologically distinct groups called “races”- contributes to the prevalence of prejudice and stereotypes. The idea of “race” is a psychological barrier in the minds of many, and even impedes their embrace of a British identity. The fact that many people view each other through the lenses of “race” is deeply concerning, as was highlighted, because we are not defined by the colour of our skin; there is only one race, and that is the human race.
British identity was similarly viewed as a racial identity, more than anything else, i.e you have to be “white” to be British. However, this cannot be further from the truth. This underlines the need to have an open and comprehensive debate about what it means to be British in the 21st century. It is imperative that an inclusive identity is fostered, based on the idea that the we are community of citizens bound by common values. In an age of rising nationalism and xenophobia, it’s never been more urgent to enunciate the values which so define us: tolerance, solidarity and respect for the individual rights and dignity. Young Londoners should also be encouraged to be citizens of the world, whose horizons are boundless.
The role of culture is particularly interesting, in that it can act as a common “bond”, or a basis of solidarity between Londoners. It’s integral that all young Londoners have equitable access to the world class cultural institutions that London has to offer. Particularly because it provides a means by which we may shape and explore our identities. Schools are one of the few public institutions which bring together people of diverse backgrounds, and must be utilized to foster common bonds. Discussions about the diversity that so characterizes London may occur here.
In addition to this, there was a sentiment expressed that Britain is not a meritocracy, in that those from less privileged backgrounds have an unfair advantage in public life. Classism was thus established as a significant impediment to social mobility. Moreover, a reference was made to the fact that there is a disproportionate number of MPs who attended independent schools and Oxbridge, therefore, the aspiration to be a MP was viewed as far fetched by some.
London is certainly a dynamic city, with plenty of potential to offer its inhabitants- yet the question is: do all have equal access to the same opportunities? In light of the recent concerns that many have been left behind by globalization and technological change, and that the fruits of economic progress have been accrued by a minority, it is crucial that young Londoners are equipped to take on the challenges they will face. This will entail systemic reforms of the educational system, which fails to prepare young people for the globalized world, at a national level. However can make a start here. For centuries, cities such as London have been at the forefront of the rapid changes which have occurred in the past, yet, they have also been the catalysts were creative and innovative are forged.