Theresa May’s first speech as prime minister: the ‘life chances’ challenge

Jul 15, 2016

Theresa May’s first speech as prime minister — her opening salutation from Downing Street — has been widely perceived as the setting forth of a ‘life chances agenda’.

By claiming that Cameron’s ‘true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice’, May implies that she will make her government’s focus on the latter more explicit. Moreover, she quickly follows a now familiar commitment to carry on in the ‘spirit’ of Cameron’s ‘one nation government’, with a reminder that the party’s ‘full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party’. ‘One nation’ — a term that was used regularly by all the competitors during the leadership contest — has come to symbolise a continuation of Cameron’s Big Society aims. But May uses it in this speech to represent a solution to division between the literal nations constituting the UK, as well as that between Disraeli’s hypothetical nations of rich and poor.

May then repeats an anaphoristic section from the campaign speech she gave in Birmingham on Monday, presenting six societal challenges, to which she had referred throughout the leadership race. Surely, solving these ‘life chances’ challenges will be central goals of her government’s policy:

‘If you’re born poor, you will die on average nine 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 will earn 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.’

Although May’s diagnosis of Britain is bleak, there has been recent progress made in all of these areas. We can therefore expect her government to continue with Michael Gove’s prison reforms, with the 2015 manifesto promise to equalise the attention given to mental and physical healthcare, and to build on measures introduced to support home buying.

Further breakthroughs with schools, universities, and employment may call for more radical approaches. Justine Greening, May’s newly-appointed education secretary — and the first state-school-educated holder of the position — has previously claimed that ‘the Tories are not pushing as hard on social mobility as they ought to be’. And May’s chief adviser, Nick Timothy — who wants ‘a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people’ — advocates academic entrance selection as a method for upping choice and standards in schooling. Raising attainment among the truly low achieving — those who remain behind their peers, regardless of their school’s performance, for instance — calls for more than systemic change, however.

The responsibility for universities being moved from the now defunct BIS to the DfE is welcome news, not least because extending access to higher education is predicated on levelling the playing field for disadvantaged children from the youngest (even pre-school) age. An alternative outcomes-driven approach regarding demographically-unbalanced university attendance would involve the introduction of quotas, but — aside from failing to fix the underlying problems — that seems unlikely to appeal to May. In this speech, she vows that people will be afforded ‘more control over [their] lives,’ affirming that ‘we will do everything we can to help anyone, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.’ This suggests an espousal of John Major-style meritocracy, rather than state-planned social engineering.

The subsequent paragraphs of this speech — which concentrate on ‘ordinary working class families’ — reflect the resolve on which May expanded in Birmingham. That speech’s reference to Joseph Chamberlain — who pushed social, educational, and local government reform in order to improve the lives of the Victorian working class in the Midlands — has led to Chamberlain being identified as an inspiration for May (again, it’s worth remembering that Nick Timothy has written extensively on him). And reaching out to lower earners in regions besides the South East will certainly be key to May’s success in increasing opportunity and decreasing division. Indeed, on Monday, she spoke of ‘a plan to help not one or even two of our great regional cities, but every single one of them.’

A phrase in the final sentences of her Downing Street mission statement echoes the words recently printed on May’s campaign lecterns: ‘a country that works not for a privileged few, but for everyone one of us’. Questions remain about how the new prime minister will direct her ‘life chances agenda’, but it has been set firmly at the heart of this government.

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