On Theresa May's Shared Society

On Monday 9th, Theresa May used the Charity Commission’s annual lecture to unveil her vision for Britain: the Shared Society.

A lot of it feels pretty familiar, and pretty difficult to argue with. The big issues she raises - the importance of tackling the stigma of mental health, the disadvantages of being female, or being BAME, of being born poor, the entrenched gap between old and young, capital and regions - are not policies, and they are not plans. They are descriptions of things everybody in the UK already knows, or should know.

May wants to move away from helping only the “very poorest” and the “brightest among the poor” to give those who feel the odds “stacked against them” more help - but this juggling of priorities between different sections of the poorest sections of the UK, much like categorising mental illnesses, is politics masquerading as empiricism. By comparing those in abject poverty to families who work hard to stay afloat but are able to do so, we risk fuelling the idea that it is the poorest who prevent the working classes from being secure. And further, in characterising programmes that assist the worst affected as in competition with programmes for the ‘worthy poor’ and the ‘bright poor’ we risk losing sight of who is in control of funding both. We risk making political choices seem like the natural order of things.

Programmes that advocate assistance for the very poor are characterised by grammar school thinking, the kind of thinking that says if we build temporary or partial programmes we can give people the space to help themselves. What the Prime Minister is talking about in reference to the “just getting by” – the “hard-working families” of yore – is something conceptually different, something based in a transformation of how opportunity works in the UK, and not acknowledging that seems like a prelude to not doing it.

The defence of citizenship being a place-related concept, the uncomfortable discussion of globalisation, the emphasis on responsibility all still feels as though it is intended to speak to people never previously confronted with the threat of alienation from the political landscape. The idea that the state does not work for you is not news to women, to BAME people, to immigrants and their children, to the poorest, and May’s speech feels to me like the points that are always made by people who argue against quotas and diversity programmes. Falling back on the “legitimate concerns of ordinary people” implies a contrast to the illegitimate concerns of rarified bubble-dwellers. Social change and economic opportunity are not synonymous, and the disadvantaged are not unified either in their disadvantages or their preferred solutions. There’s no getting round the problem that paying lip-service to them is not the same as having real, consultation-rich, diversified plans.

May says that there are people all over the country who see “their communities changing, but don’t remember being consulted”, who feel their “very identity…is under threat” – descriptions we usually see attached to ‘insular’ immigrant communities in less favourable contexts. These ideas are not compatible with her solutions – helping the struggling working class families, ensuring equality of access and opportunity and outcome for women, for BAME people, for the young and the old – which all need deep and meaningful social change.

How can transformative steps solve a problem that is rooted in a fear of change? How can conflicting views of identity politics be reconciled without addressing them – as though agreeing that there is “one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else” is automatically the same as having a unified idea of what to do about that.

The Prime Minister is completely right to emphasise the people consistently undermined by society - the kind of change she’s talking about is something many, many people have been holding their breath to be offered, not just for years but for decades. If it turns out that this was a little more than she meant to promise, or a little more than largely absent plans can deliver, it may not be as easy to get them to start again.