The Shared Society
– Prime Minister Theresa May’s Speech at the Charity Commission Annual Meeting
Royal Society, London
9 January 2017
Good morning, everybody. And thank you very much for inviting me to be here this morning to deliver the prestigious Charity Commission annual lecture.
And I am delighted to have this opportunity to express my appreciation for all those who work in our charity sector and for those who freely give their time, money and expertise in the service of others. We are a country built on the bonds of family, community and citizenship and there is no greater example of the strength of those bonds than our great movement of charities and social enterprises.
But the strength of that civil society – which I believe we should treasure deeply – does not just depend on the ingenuity, generosity and commitment of countless volunteers, social entrepreneurs and philanthropists. As with other parts of our economy, it also depends on the practices that our charities and social enterprises adopt; and above all, on the public trust they command.
And that is why the work that William, Paula and their team at the Charity Commission are doing is so important. Because the reforms they are leading are strengthening the sector – and together with the new Fundraising Regulator – ensuring public confidence in our charities and the contribution they make in helping to meet some of the greatest social challenges of our time.
And let’s be clear that some of those challenges are significant and long-standing.
We live in a country where if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you’re likely to be paid less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
There are not easy answers to these problems, but it is vital that we come together to address them. For they are all burning injustices that undermine the solidarity of our society and stunt our capacity to build the stronger, fairer country that we want Britain to be.
But the challenges don’t end there. Governments have traditionally been good at identifying – if not always addressing – such problems. However, the mission I have laid out for the government – to make Britain a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few – goes further. It means more than fighting these obvious injustices. It means acknowledging and addressing the everyday injustices that too many people feel, too.
Because while the obvious injustices receive a lot of attention – with the language of social justice and social mobility a staple of most politicians today – the everyday injustices are too often overlooked.
But if you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. The injustice you feel may be less obvious, but it burns inside you just the same.
For you have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying the mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.
You are putting in long hours with little time for yourself – working to live, and living to work. You give work your all, but there is still little left over at the end of the month to spend on the things that really matter to you. Your wages have stagnated for several years in a row, and you feel you are getting by, not necessarily getting on.
And at the same time, over recent years, these people have felt locked out of the political and social discourse in Britain. If they voiced their concerns, their views were shut down. Decisions made in faraway places didn’t always seem to be the right decisions for them. They saw their community changing, but didn’t remember being consulted – or agreeing to – that change. They looked at the changing world – the onset of globalisation and the advances in technology – and worried about what the future held for their children and grandchildren.
It is clear to me – and I believe that last year’s vote to leave the European Union partially revealed this to be true – that there are growing numbers of people in every part of our country – in our cities, suburbs, towns, countryside and coastal areas – for whom this is the reality of life.
And the consequence is this: when you see others prospering while you are not; when you try to raise your concerns but they fall on deaf ears; when you feel your very identity – all that you hold dear – is under threat, resentments grow, and the divisions that we see around us – between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation; between the wealth of London and the rest of the country; between the rich, the successful and the powerful, and their fellow citizens – become entrenched.
That’s why I believe that – when we consider both the obvious and the everyday injustices in unison – we see that the central challenge of our times is to overcome division and bring our country together by ensuring everyone has the chance to share in the wealth and opportunity on offer in Britain today. And that starts by building something that I call the shared society.
The shared society is one that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another.
It’s a society that respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. The bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions.
And it’s a society that recognises the obligations we have as citizens – obligations that make our society work.
A few months ago, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, I upset some by saying that “if you think you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.
But my point was simple. It was that the very word ‘citizen’ implies that we have responsibilities to the people around us. The people in our community, on our streets, in our places of work. And too often today, those responsibilities have been forgotten as the cult of individualism has taken hold, and globalisation and the democratisation of communications has encouraged people to look beyond their own communities and immediate networks in the name of joining a broader global community.
I want to be absolutely clear about what I am saying here. I am not arguing against globalisation – nor the benefits it brings – from modern travel and modern media to new products in our shops and new opportunities for British companies to export their goods to millions of consumers all around the world. Indeed, I have argued that Britain has an historic global opportunity to lead the world in shaping the forces of globalisation so that everyone shares in the benefits of economic growth.
But just as we need to act to address the economic inequalities that have emerged in recent years, so we also need to recognise the way that a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind.
And the central tenet of my belief – the thing that shapes my approach – is that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest.
We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations. And we embrace the responsibilities those institutions imply. And government has a clear role to play to support this conception of society.
It is to act to encourage and nurture those relationships, networks and institutions where it can. And it is to step up to correct injustices and tackle unfairness at every turn – because injustice and unfairness are the things that drive us apart.
This means a government rooted not in the laissez-faire liberalism that leaves people to get by on their own, but rather in a new philosophy that means government stepping up – not just in the traditional way of providing a welfare state to support the most vulnerable, as vital as that will always be. But actually in going further to help those who have been ignored by government for too long because they don’t fall into the income bracket that makes them qualify for welfare support.
It means making a significant shift in the way that government works in Britain. Because government and politicians have for years talked the language of social justice – where we help the very poorest – and social mobility – where we help the brightest among the poor. But to deliver the change we need and build that shared society, we must move beyond this agenda and deliver real social reform across every layer of society so that those who feel that the system is stacked against them – those just above the threshold that attracts the government’s focus today yet who are by no means rich or well off – are also given the help they need.
So we will recalibrate how we approach policy development to ensure that everything we do as government helps to give those who are just getting by a fair chance – while still helping those who are most disadvantaged. Because people who are just managing, just getting by, don’t need a government that will get out of the way, they need a government that will make the system work for them. An active government that will help them share in the growing prosperity of post-Brexit Britain.
That’s why we will shortly launch a new housing white paper to boost supply, tackle the increasing lack of affordability in housing, and so help ordinary working people with the high costs of this most basic of necessities.
It’s why we will shortly publish a green paper to put forward our approach for a modern industrial strategy, setting out our plans to encourage growth, innovation and investment and ensure that as we aim to increase our overall prosperity – that prosperity is shared by people in every corner of our country.
It’s why as part of building a great meritocracy I’ve already outlined plans to increase the number of good school places so that every child – not just those who are fortunate to have parents who can afford to move to a good catchment area or pay to go private – can enjoy a school place that caters to their individual interests, abilities and needs.