The “Shared Society” agenda?

There’s more to life than individualism, and self-interest suggests our new PM.

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When Mrs Thatcher made her ‘sermon on the mound’, she explained her political social vision. It was one where the leftist concept of ‘society’ did not exist, instead she talked of ‘individuals and families’. Nothing more. Naturally this concept of what makes up our collective life helps explain her intellectual retreat from a socially intervening government.

And when David Cameron came along, seeking to try and modernise the party, breaking with this worshipping of the individual was deemed critical. The only problem was, his ‘big society’ vision was as mealy mouthed as it was lacklustre. It consisted largely of splitting the Tory ideological baggage. Keeping the ‘individuals and families’ theme, but adding in a slice of ‘charities can help fight poverty’. In short, the ‘big society’ never really represented a decisive break with the sermon on the mound. It was never the ideological challenge necessary to take Tory modernisation forward; and away from Thatcherism and the alter of 1980s dogmas.

Put it simply: Thatcherism’s insistence that society was just individual – men and women – and families cut away any notion of a ‘social contract’. And Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ never tackled that huge error.

In step Mrs May. The original modernisers moderniser. She penned the phrase ‘nasty party’. She largely made Cameron and his modernising possible. Whereas in the 1990s and 2000s she was passed over for the crown, it now seems to have fallen into her lap. A bit ‘I Claudius’, after Brexit massacres she’s the only one of ‘the family’ of modernising Tories left. The Tory Praetorians put her on the throne since she was the only natural choice for the natural party of government.

Now (and not before time frankly) she invites us to better understand her vision of Toryism, society, the role of government and the individual. 

“It goes to the heart of my belief that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest,” -Theresa May

Let’s start with this one. In the past May has spoken of the need for government to intervene in cases of market failure. This speech a full-throated call for interventionism in areas where markets simply aren’t delivering the best deal for consumers. Add to this her previous interventionist rhetoric vis-a-vis the energy market, we begin to detect a decisive break from the ideological past.

More than a passive acknowledgement that market failures exist, this is a belief that it is a moral imperative for government to actively and energetically intervene on behalf of consumers, voters and wider society.

“People who are just managing – just getting by – don’t need a government that will get out of the way. They need an active government that will step up and champion the things that matter to them”

This continues a new theme. Whereas Cameron talked of a ‘society that works for everyone’; his refusal to countenance major government interventionism in certain markets coupled with an absurd over-reliance on charitable activism always gave lie to that phrase. ‘Big Society’ was always a little bit hollow and meaningless if it only allowed for third sector activism, and kept gov’t activism firmly off the intellectual table.

For my part, Ms May seems to be challenging that with her ‘Shared Society’ vision. Not merely saying government might reluctantly need to intervene, she’s making a virtue of it. ‘People…don’t need a government that will get out of the way’ really is a revealing statement. And never one you’d have heard from a Tory PM since Mrs Thatcher reinvented the party. This new shift opens up fresh opportunities.

“The ‘Shared Society’ idea doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another”

Consider this value statement, and consider what Ms May has previously said on homelessness, affordable housing, workers representation on directors boards…we begin to see a picture emerging.

Brexit has presented May with a chance to genuinely restructure how Britain operates. Our sense of civic obligations, our jobs and responsibilities to one another. And critically, the role the government sees for itself in society.

If May ‘walks the walk’ and does revolutionise affordable home construction, help solve homelessness and does succeed in making business management more representative of their labour-force then I for one shall applaud her. If she does identify a way of reducing energy prices, improving services and delivering better value for consumers in energy through gov’t interventionism – then she’d have my support.

Like when she ended the degeneracy of ‘child detention’ as home secretary, Theresa May is at her best when she is fighting ‘burning injustice’. She is right about modern Toryism: we need to realise society is still about individuals – men and women – but also families, shared responsibilities and obligations; to one another.

Theresa May has just made me a little more excited that my party will finally get out of the Margaret Thatcher intellectual shadow. Mrs T was the woman of her time and for the moment; but it is high time we moved on. Mrs May is the woman for this time, this moment.

Edmund Burke, the original liberal Tory, insisted that there was a social contract. It was between those who are dead and those not yet born; and we are merely custodians for their inheritance. A clear concept of a wider civic obligation, a duty to a wider society. A social contract determining responsibilities past to us by ancestors and passed down from us to successors. Reform then, was to preserve that which works, and do away with that which does not. I hope Ms May is returning us to this social contract (or a variation on the theme). There was always something fundamentally empty in a value system insisting there was ‘no such thing as society’. I’m a Burkean, I believe in a social contract – and I hope so does Theresa May.

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