Expert view: Together we defy the cynics

The Social Trends report, the Government's annual snapshot of national life, shows that the ties that once bound us are becoming increasingly frayed.

It's further proof that bringing people of different backgrounds under one banner can be difficult.

But two contemporary phenomena have achieved just that. The first, the London Marathon, is a national institution: a day when tens of thousands of ordinary people push themselves to the limits of endurance to raise money for good causes. The second, a celebration to mark St George's Day, is brand new and on a smaller scale but shares the same values of caring and charity.

The campaign to bring the marathon to London was the brainchild of 1956 Olympic steeplechase gold-medallist Chris Brasher. His enthusiasm and determination were infectious. In the first London Marathon in 1981, 6,255 runners took part. On 22 April this year, more than five times that number made it to the finishing line. They were cheered on mainly by complete strangers.

The St George's Day pilot is also seeking to bring people together on one day in April. It is encouraging everyone who calls England 'home' to celebrate the country on 23 April each year. Throughout February and March and in every one of England's 50 cities, people of all nationalities, religions and political persuasions were invited to drink together from a loving cup in an act of common friendship.

The campaign supports a number of charities that have benefited from hundreds of fundraising events in schools, pubs and communities throughout the land. Before its launch, however, critics warned that the campaign might stir tensions and do more harm than good; they cautioned against rallying expectations under the banner of the distinctive red-and-white flag - often a symbol of jingoism in the past.

It could have been a gamble had the organisers failed to do their homework. They commissioned a poll that showed almost three-quarters of us support a national celebration. And the results of that poll were borne out by the success of the St George's Day celebrations. At each city, people from diverse backgrounds and cultures respected and celebrated their differences and embraced their home - England.

Social Trends makes depressing reading. But while campaigners are prepared to challenge their critics and ask communities to celebrate together the place they call home, and while people like Brasher are able to recognise the potential in us to go the extra (26) mile(s) for each other, my money is on the good guy every time.

- Susan Osborne is communications and campaigns adviser to the Association for International Cancer Research.

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