Our Common Good


It’s the most important book I’ve read in years.  Our Common Good, by John Nickson, looks at the state of UK society and sets out inspiring tales of projects and initiatives around the country that are trying to level an unequal playing field as public resources dwindle and new solutions are needed.

It’s convincing because each chapter sets out what interviewees have said.  Historians – including Mary Beard and Peter Frankopan – tell us about giving, philanthropy and society across millennia.  We have assessments of inequality in various guises, including access to health and the legal system.  We hear from people working with teenagers in East London and Oldham, children in Blackpool, communities in Northern Ireland and deprived areas of Surrey and Cheshire lying cheek-by-jowl with some of the most prosperous parts of the country.  There are tales of what hasn’t worked, as well as what’s turned out to be a success.

The book is in two parts.  The initial analysis of UK society and the inequalities within it is the best I’ve read.  Some of the points were familiar, but they had greater resonance because of the different voices used.  Until reading this, I hadn’t focused on:

  • The extent to which asset inequality in conjunction with generational inequality is impacting society and feeding a breakdown of trust between generations; and
  • How that breakdown of trust between generations is exacerbating (as well as being fuelled by) the disappearance of traditional community life.

The importance of community and the need for community-based solutions is one of the key themes of the book.  I think it’s also one of the reasons government-led initiatives are unlikely to succeed.  The initiatives I found most inspiring are small-scale, locally-based and punching way above their weight as they tackle problems in their immediate neighbourhood.

As I read the book, I realised that this is how people will make a difference in the future.  Yes, there’ll be transformational gifts for research projects, but even those are now looking at delivery – say, in the health sector – on a smaller-scale, focused on localities and communities.

I was also struck by the analysis of millennials’ giving and how many are more likely to give to causes than to charities; causes aren’t institutions.  The emphasis on volunteering and giving time rings true, along with the desire for businesses – particularly their own employers – to focus on customers, suppliers and employees, rather than shareholders/investors and ROE.  The most fascinating part of the book is around comments by Dame Zarine Kharas, co-founder of JustGiving, on how business and ethics should be inextricably linked.  If you read nothing else in the book, do read that – oh, and the comments by Peter Frankopan and Ben Elliot.

John Nickson is a friend, but that’s not why I’m waxing so lyrical about this book.  I’m singing its praises because it holds a mirror to our society and shows how it could, so easily, improve for the benefit of all of us.



Every human institution, from marriage to the army to the government to the courts to corporations and banks, religions, every system of civilisation is now in jeopardy because of this new transparency.  So spake Professor Daniel Dennett over Lunch With the FT in an article that appeared in the 4/5 March 2017 edition.  He was criticising the blinding light of transparency from digital technologies that’s permeating institutions, producing a world where it’s near-impossible to keep secrets.

I’ve also been reading John Nickson’s latest book Our Common Good, which looks in detail at the erosion of trust in institutions and what’s often referred to as the establishment:  the media; the police; our MPs; car manufacturers, banks and other businesses; sporting bodies; the Catholic Church; care and other social services … the list goes on.  But one of the points made in Our Common Good is that the level of trust in institutions is unequal and there’s a correlation with inequality of income.  Put bluntly, the so-called elite (or more informed) public is more likely to trust government, business, the media and other organisations to do what’s right than the majority of the population.

Where problems have been concealed, a blinding light of transparency – and truth – can help to put the record straight.  But it’s hardly surprising that a stream of disclosures breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust and feeds alternatives to the establishment.

But Professor Dennett’s concerns appear to be wider.  He argues for institutions to have “membranes” that allow them to retain some privacy and control over their information.  I think he’s saying that the transparency pendulum has swung too far, too quickly, and we need both time to adjust and the opportunity to dial back to a moderated position.

My concern is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and, even if it could be put back, it might not be wise for that to be done.  If it’s accepted that levels of trust are generally low, establishing a wall of privacy around institutions that are perceived as bearing some of the responsibility for that lack of trust doesn’t seem to be the best approach.

I’ll post next week on other points from Our Common Good that suggest ways forward, but our approach needs to pull society together, not drive us further apart, no matter how much we might want to turn back the clock.