Sunday, 8 January 2017

What can we expect from Theresa May’s shared society?

Theresa May is apparently not someone who acts in haste. It has taken quite a few months for her to articulate her vision for the future of the country.

There is a danger of a jaded response – we have seen it all before, “No such thing as society”, the Big Society, and now the Shared Society, but this would be a mistake. We are only seeing a glimpse of what she has in mind, but it is something that could prove quite a challenge to people on different ends of the political spectrum.

For conservatives the big question is always how much should government do. The hard right want minimal government, some want a government that just gives a safety net for the very poor and needy, Theresa May seems to be willing to antagonise the hard right by insisting that we need a government that feels fairer to those who have limited opportunities, and that the government should be prepared to intervene in markets that are not seen as fair.  She also acknowledges the real injustice of health inequality, life expectancy and mental health care, as well as housing affordability and inequalities in educational opportunity. She wants to tackle all of this.

I think that Mrs May is trying a difficult balancing act. She cannot ignore the fact that many of the people who led the political arguments for Brexit did so because they wanted minimal government, but neither can she ignore that the narrow majority who voted for Brexit were often motivated by the sense that they and their families were not getting a fair chance in life.

She has signalled a shift from the safety net approach of social justice to a “more wide ranging process of social reform, so that those who feel the system is stacked against them – those just above the threshold that typically attracts the government’s focus today yet who are by no means rich or well off – are also given the support they need”. It of course remains to be seen what effect this will be in practice, and it will be interesting to see to what extent those who feel that the political process does not work for them will be engaged in working out what form this support needs to take.

One of the reasons that David Cameron’s Big Society never took off is that the set of people who were needed to make it work saw the Big Society as a sticking plaster, where charities were expected to cover over the wounds left by austerity cuts. Theresa May’s Shared Society seems a lot more subtle than that but she still needs to find a way to reach across the political spectrum if she is to have any chance of success.  

What will be interesting to see is if there is a genuine attempt to include people who think differently, or if it is an attempt to characterise the activities of the left as self interest. The two uses of the word union in the article could be seen as marginalising the role of Unions, and it is likely that Unions will treat the whole idea of a shared society with suspicion.

It was also interesting to read the editorial in the Sunday Telegraph It appears that they would clearly be urging the PM to tackle union power. 

The PM is hoping to build a “society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nation; a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart”. There will be a thousand and one interpretations of what such fairness should look like. 


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