The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used to share a parable with his students in which he asked them to imagine a man who had spent his entire life eating nothing but meat and potatoes.
Then he asked his students to reflect on how absurd it would be to point to different parts of the man and proclaim which pieces were potato and which were meat. Wittgenstein’s point was we’re not just a mosaic of our influences, with each individual experience divisible from another. Rather, we take experiences and influences and meld with them to create a perspective that is uniquely our own.
Last week Theresa May let us in on her vision of a ‘shared society’ and ever since commentators, such as myself, have been trying to sort the meat from the potatoes. What inspires her vision and why share it?
A common assumption is that all who occupy Number 10 must be guided by some master plan or divine mission and that their motivation is some injustice or desire to correct a course. My hunch is Ms May considers such grand visions ephemeral. Hence her preference for simplistic messages: ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, ‘just about managing’, and now ‘shared society’. Each is easy to lampoon for being banal, but almost impossible to criticise for being ‘wrong’. And yet, a blueprint for a future society is a hygiene test for prime ministers. Without one they seem lost to us, all tactics and no strategy.
Therefore one could consider Ms May’s ‘shared society’ a requirement of job; the prime ministerial equivalent of signing HR’s mandatory health and safety form. Its simplicity has drawn criticism as has its supposed lack of originality, family and community being so common as political bedrocks that their devotees range from Ghengis Khan to Jimmy Carter. It is also policy-light. We’ve had passion on mental health, threats on executive pay and soft peddling on grammar schools; hardly the stuff of a ‘great society’.
And yet, I can’t help but detect something of the profound.
First, as an idea it is safe precisely because it’s not new. We’ve heard it all before. This is a strength being misinterpreted as a weakness. At a time of great instability, people will be drawn to and comforted by consistency. Second, much of Ms May’s limited public pronouncements have transcended niche agendas and instead addressed broader tensions in society, specifically the relationship between Britain’s elites and its non-elites. Take executive pay and grammar schools, her first significant policy interventions. Are these issues not about the connection between elite and non-elite; how society allows people to break into these elites, and then how they are rewarded compared to the rest?
For a society to be prosperous and peaceful the governing elites, be they political, financial or cultural, must be bonded to non-elites. Their connection to one another restricts excess; attached elites cannot impose a despotic tyranny because the populace would rise up, and a populist crowd cannot force through extreme policies because the rule of law, influence and institutions mobilise against them. Each keeps the other in check.
Elite and non-elite view each other as if looking down opposing ends of a telescope. Governing for everyone means seeing it all from afar, whereas deciding who to vote for has become the analysis of an individual. When politicians talk about the British people having an intuitive sense of something, they’re simply reflecting the view from their end of the telescope; distant and imprecise. Similarly when a voter says that X politician ‘gets it’, it reflects the closeness and personal detail of their view.
Ms May’s strength isn’t, to borrow from Clive James, turning a phrase so it catches the light, but I believe she has a strong sense of the frayed state of our shared immaterial bonds. Her peon to family, community and responsibility is a cliché, but aren’t all clichés truisms?
The 18th century French political writer Germaine De Stael wrote that the most powerful connection between elite and non-elite is a shared moral and aesthetic judgement. Concepts such as fairness, duty, respect and beauty are ultimately subjective but placed under the microscope of collective scrutiny, I believe, most of us would recognise these in similar ways. Put another way, if elite and non-elite have a common understanding of what is fair then it is much easier for them to trust each other’s motives. If a ‘shared society’ vision can help rebuild this trust then there might just be a bit of poetry hidden amongst its admittedly dry prose.
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive, Localis