When the British people voted in the referendum last June, they did not simply vote to withdraw from the European Union; they voted to change the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – forever. It was a quiet revolution by those who feel the system has been stacked against them for too long – and an instruction to this government to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.
That mission begins by tackling some of the burning injustices that undermine the solidarity of our society. As I said on my first day in Downing Street, it is vital that we tackle, for example, the shorter life expectancy for those born poor, the harsher treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, the lower chances of white working class boys going to university, and as I will be discussing further in my lecture to the Charity Commission tomorrow, the despicable stigma and inadequate help for those with mental health conditions.
But our mission to build a stronger, fairer Britain goes further. For while the obvious injustices often receive a lot of attention – after all, politicians have been talking the language of social justice and social mobility for years – the everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel are too often overlooked.
If you are in one of these families, life can be much harder than many in Westminster appreciate. You have a job but no job security; you just about manage but worry about the cost of living and getting your children into a good school; you put in long hours – working to live and living to work – but your wages have stagnated and there is little left over at the end of the month.
So when you see others prospering while you are not; when you try to raise your concerns but they fall on deaf ears; when you feel locked out of the political and social discourse and feel no one is on your side, resentments grow, and the divisions that we see around us – between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation; between the wealth of London and the rest of the country; between the rich, the successful and the powerful, and their fellow citizens – become entrenched.
Overcoming these divisions and bringing our country together is the central challenge of our time.
That means building the shared society. A society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nations; a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart.
This must be the cause that animates us – the end towards which we work as we leave the EU and make the most of the opportunities ahead. It is the right response to those who voted for change back in June. And it goes to the heart of my belief that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. The social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations are the things that define us and make us strong.
And it is the job of government to encourage and nurture these relationships and institutions where it can, and to correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found.
So as we move through this period of great change for our nation, this government will seize the opportunity to build the shared society by embracing genuine and wide-ranging social reform. We will move beyond the narrow focus on social justice – where we help the very poorest – and social mobility – where we help the brightest among the poor. Instead, we will engage in a more wide-ranging process of social reform so that those who feel that the system is stacked against them – those just above the threshold that typically attracts the government’s focus today yet who are by no means rich or well off – are also given the support they need.
It means developing policies that give a fair chance to those who are just getting by, as well as those who are most disadvantaged. Because 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.
From tackling the increasing lack of affordability in housing, fixing broken markets to help with the cost of living, and building a great meritocracy where every child has the opportunity of a good school place, we will act across every layer of society to restore the fairness that is the bedrock of the social solidarity that makes our nation strong.
For it is only by being a government that works for everyone that we can tackle the injustice and unfairness that threatens to drive us apart, nurture a new sense of solidarity and citizenship in Britain, and show all those who voted with such hope last year – many who voted for the first time in years, and others for the first time at all – that mainstream, centre-ground politics can deliver the change they need.