Return of the state: May’s ‘shared society’

Different shades of blue: Three Tory prime ministers with varying visions on social policy.

The UK’s Conservative party has agreed on one point since the 1980s: governments should not do too much. But today the prime minister, Theresa May, will reject that view. Is she right?

Rarely do stories in Woman’s Own magazine outline the prime minister’s worldview. But in 1987, Margaret Thatcher gave it a summary of her entire approach to socio-economic policy.

‘There’s no such thing as society,’ she said. ‘There are individual men and women and there are families. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, our neighbours.’ Government benefits, she argued, should simply provide a safety net.

Her words have defined the Conservative Party’s vision for a generation. But today, her successor Theresa May will challenge them in a major speech. The government, she will say, has a responsibility to create a ‘shared society’ and strengthen the ‘bonds’ within communities.

‘There is more to life than individualism and self-interest,’ she wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. ‘It is government’s job to correct the injustice and unfairness that divide us.’ She stressed her desire to help not only the poorest, but also those ‘just managing’.

Her government will try to apply conservative principles to an era of growing inequality and division. Through a programme of social reforms, it will try to help people with mental health problems; tackle homelessness; spread jobs across the UK; and free up land for new housing.

In contrast, Thatcher sought to limit government’s role and increase prosperity by encouraging business – largely in response to the economic stagnation of the 1970s. But critics said it failed to protect the most vulnerable.

May’s immediate predecessor, David Cameron, called for a ‘Big Society’, with stronger charities and local groups. He also diluted Thatcher’s famous words, saying: ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’ But unlike May, he stressed that government should be small.

In the USA, government tends to be weak; institutions, like churches, often provide social support. May’s approach is more European, where governments set high tax rates and retain well-funded welfare states. It also has echoes of her party’s ‘one nation’ conservatism of the 19th century.


Interventionists say government is where everyone comes together to tackle problems. Its collective power provides stability and security and helps those left behind. Thatcher encouraged rampant individualism, selfishness, inequality and exploitation; May is heading in the right direction.

Those with a laissez-faire attitude say governments create more problems than they solve. Pointless rules stifle the entrepreneurial spirit. Remote government mandarins do not understand how to make ordinary people’s lives better. And government action encourages resentment and dependence, rather than dynamism and achievement.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer people in authority who try to improve your life, or those who leave you alone?
  2. Should governments actively try to address society’s problems?


  1. In fours, think of a problem in society you care about. Write a manifesto (a list of policies) showing what you would do about it. Discuss as a class: would you be more like Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher?
  2. In pairs, prepare a three-minute presentation on the philosophies of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May (research one of them each). How similar are their principles and policies?

Some People Say...

“The government’s job is to get out of people’s way.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the prime minister is giving a speech. Don’t politicians do this all the time?
Theresa May’s speech is a significant one. She is still a fairly new prime minister: she has been in the job for less than six months. This is her chance to explain how — and how much — she plans to change the country she presides over. Perhaps you worry that you, or people you care about, will be left to fend for yourself. Or perhaps you worry that government action will be unfair and spend your money unwisely.
But I’m not British.
The extent of government involvement in your life is relevant anywhere. It is an important reason why people around the world have different philosophies. And it will play a major part in vital elections across Europe this year — understanding it will help you understand them.

Word Watch

May will say government should ‘nurture’ the ‘social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations.’ Conservatives value these institutions; liberals and socialists tend to criticise them.
Thatcher drew heavily on the theories of free-market economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.
In the 1970s, the UK saw strikes, high unemployment and high inflation. The economic consensus of the time was damaged; Thatcher’s call for limited government became more popular.
Big Society
This philosophy led to policies such as free schools: the government gave money to organisations, such as parents’ groups, who wished to start schools. These were free of local authority control, so they were subject to less oversight.
One nation
A term coined by Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative prime minister in the late 19th century. It suggested a social hierarchy was natural, but people had responsibilities to those above or below them.
Allowing things to run their own course (derived from French).


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