Government and Institutions

Theresa May’s article about the “shared society” is a virtue-signalling undergraduate essay

I read Theresa May’s article about the “shared society” – assuming it was she who wrote it, and not her shadowy acolytes – with interest. It is always good to know what underlies our politicians’ thinking.

But it is a disappointing read, a virtue-signalling undergraduate essay. It begins with the assertion, shared with most commentators that the Brexit vote was about something deeper than the simple question asked about leaving the European Union.

Possibly – but it’s debatable, when you look at who voted, and where they voted, that this was a revolt by “those who feel the system has been stacked against them for too long”. Still less that it was a protest against “burning injustices” such as the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, about poor people dying younger than they should, and bad schools. Yet at the same time it’s apparently about people who don’t necessarily suffer from these things, but are “just getting by”.

Our society, like every society that has ever been or ever will be, is imperfect. There are remediable wrongs, but some things that will always present problems. David Cameron also wanted to row back from Margaret Thatcher’s quoted-out-of-context remark that there is no such thing as society. In the event, he did little about it, but at least his “Big Society” vision invoked Burkean ideas of the “little platoons” of civil society. He accepted that the state shouldn’t, and couldn’t, do everything. May, though, says it is the job of government “to correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found”.

Fine words. But there is no understanding in May’s piece that injustice and unfairness are inevitably contested notions: “the privileged few” are easy to denounce, more difficult to define. Government assistance to one group is often at the expense of another. Interventions to “cure” one set of problems produce unintended consequences, and fresh problems elsewhere. Government spending on fine abstractions, such as foreign aid, end up as money in dictators’ Swiss bank accounts or financing Ethiopian girl bands.

The first fruit of May’s new approach – her call for a “revolution in child mental health care” – is yet another top-down initiative, with extra spending on “crisis cafes”, “digital therapy” and other expensive gee-gaws plus yet tighter anti-discrimination laws and that all-purpose fall-back, more “training” for anyone who goes near children. Is there any evidence that this stuff will have any real impact on what is in any case a very ill-defined issue?

I have no idea of the real scale or nature of the problem of child mental health, and I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in this. Did people who voted for Brexit have this concern in mind? I do know that there are worthy mental health charities with a single-minded, spend-more agenda, and clever civil servants and paid wonks who can rustle up an action plan at a few weeks’ notice. May has willed it, and it must happen. In what sense, though, is this really “the right response to those who voted for change back in June”?

It looks more like displacement activity, however worthy the cause. Like the renewed emphasis on industrial strategy, the shared society idea may help brand the May prime ministership. It might make sense in the run-up to a general election.

But for now, our accidental Prime Minister has a more important task, which is to devote her energies to organising a rapid and sensible exit from the European Union. Brexit means Brexit, not a demand to expand yet further the role of the state.


This article was first published in City AM.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

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