Theresa May reveals “shared society” vision

Britain’s prime minister says she wants to develop a “shared society” built on mutual responsibility which is focused on helping people who are “just getting by” as well as the very poorest.

Delivering the annual lecture for the Charity Commission for England and Wales on Monday 9 January, Theresa May set out, for the first time, her vision of how society should work.

Although she didn’t go into detail about the role she envisaged for charities and social enterprises, she did say she wanted the UK to continue leading the way internationally in social finance.

We must deliver real social reform across every layer of society so that those who feel that the system is stacked against them are also given the help they need

The wide-ranging speech gave some details of May’s plans for post-Brexit Britain. She said the aim of the “shared society” was to ensure everyone had the chance to share in the wealth and opportunity on offer after withdrawal from the European Union.

“The shared society,” she said, “is one that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another.”

“This means,” she said, “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.”

She said there would be a “significant shift” in the way government worked in Britain.

“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,” she said.

But to build this shared society, she continued, “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…are also given the help they need.”


An environment in which to thrive

She said that the government should create an environment in which charities and social enterprises could thrive.

She added that the government should “not be ambivalent” about the efforts of those who tackle social challenges.

She also said: “And it is why we will continue to lead the way internationally in the development of social finance to harness the full potential of our charities and social enterprises in working with business and government to tackle some of the biggest social challenges in our country.”

May went on to talk in detail about her ambitions to tackle “the burning injustice of mental illness” with new measures for treatment as well as prevention. She highlighted the UK’s “global leadership on social impact bonds” which are already providing up to £50m to support people with mental health issues back into work and help tackle the link between drug and alcohol dependency and mental health problems.

She added that there would be up to £15m of extra funding available for community clinics, crisis cafes and alternative places of safety to support a wider range of preventative services in the community.


What is the “shared society”?

Many reactions to May’s speech focused on the “shared society” concept, which moves the present government’s focus away from that of the previous prime minister David Cameron’s “big society”.

Director of ResPublica think tank, self-proclaimed “red Tory” and one of the driving forces behind David Cameron’s big society agenda, Phillip Blond gave a positive reaction. He tweeted: “Really the shared society is big society plus the state – a welcome and much needed addition.”

Phillip Blond tweet

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO, commented that it was significant that the prime minister was addressing the sector directly.

Karl Wilding tweet

The Guardian’s politics blogger Andrew Sparrow wrote: “I still have no real idea what the ‘shared society’ is apart from, well, society.”


“Social enterprises are ready”

Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK, the sector’s representative body, said: “It is always welcome when the prime minister talks glowingly about our great movement.”

However, he said that too many social enterprises were succeeding despite rather than because of the economic, taxation and policy environments in which they operate.

“Nevertheless,” he added, “it is refreshing to hear the prime minister reiterate her intention to lead a government which is active and which rejects a laissez-faire approach to social issues. As ever, the devil will be in the detail and the delivery, and we know that many social enterprises are ready and able to put these words into action.”

Header photo: The prime minister Theresa May at an EU Council meeting in December 2016. Jay Allen/Crown Copyright.

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