Theresa May’s comments about society in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-shared-society-article-by-theresa-may have inevitably led to plenty of response about the meaning of the word and why politicians, particularly Conservative ones, have got so hung up about society. Cameron’s big version, Thatcher’s claim it doesn’t exist at all: defining and redefining society has become an essential part of Tory philosophising.
But society isn’t the only word that May uses that has become part of the stock in trade of social commentary. She also said in her Sunday Telegraph article: “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”.
Meanwhile I’ve noticed certain people saying that they are in solidarity with the striking Tube drivers and Southern Rail train drivers. Our struggle is their struggle, that kind of thing. I imagine the poor commuters who can’t get to work or the hospital patients who can’t make their vital treatment would wish the striking drivers would show some solidarity with them.
The trouble with solidarity is that it’s a term that people can all too easily use and it provides the user with a warm glow. We’re with with you, brother. We feel your pain.
Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, warned against this way of thinking: Solidarity, he said, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all”.
That’s why solidarity is a key concept of Catholic Social Teaching. It requires people to provide what one might term a sacred vow to others, to act together for the betterment of society. Mrs May has frequently said she is concerned about the JAMS – the just about managing members of society. If she really wants to encourage social solidarity, then she has to lead from the top. That means some imagination about the future of the NHS and the affordability of housing.
Above all, it means making amends for the most glaring error of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn statement: it made no reference at all to social care. If a civilized society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we need more investment in social care for the elderly and particularly those with dementia. More money is not the only priority, though. We need a commitment from society as a whole for better standards of care and more interest in the social care we offer people. In other words, the most vulnerable need our commitment to their common good, our solidarity. Not just words, action. Over to you, Prime Minister.
Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and The Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark this autumn.