Is Theresa May’s ‘shared society’ speech just a rather empty rebranding exercise, or something serious that will shift social policy in this country? The Prime Minister today set out more of her thinking on domestic reform and defined what her ‘shared society’ will look like. It’s something we have only caught glimpses of up until now, because of the truncated leadership contest and the focus on Brexit.
She painted a very gloomy picture of life in Britain today, focusing on all the things that are going very badly wrong for many people: ‘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.’
This was a repeat of her speech on the steps of Downing Street, so May clearly thinks it is important to sound gloomy about Britain. It is a clear contrast to the sunlit language of both David Cameron and George Osborne. Perhaps the new Prime Minister felt as though her colleagues appeared too complacent and unaware of the struggles of many ‘ordinary’ Britons when they were in office.
But this, and the language around the ‘shared society’, is still just about a pitch, not a policy. The closest we got in the speech to a sense of how the ‘shared society’ would be different from the ‘big society’ was in May’s announcement that the government will move ‘beyond’ the social mobility 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’. She then announced a load of measures that seem indistinguishable from the agenda of the previous government – unless of course the main difference in May’s mind is that her government will actually deliver on housebuilding.
As for the announcements on mental health, these are of course important and the mental health charities have welcomed them as a step in the right direction, but the situation in mental health care is worthy of a very downbeat speech indeed – and will require far more than tiny pots of money here and there.
So the most striking thing about May’s speech today was not that it was policy rich, for it was not, and not that she has a radically different view of society to her predecessors. Instead, the most important takeaway is that May believes she must speak to those who currently resent the government’s lack of interest in them and their struggles.