We might say that what marks out civil society is that beyond our common existence in some sort of the same proximity, there are other things that bind us together, that give us a sense of being more than simply an individual, or a family, and instead being part of a community, and perhaps, beyond that, giving us a sense of who we are as a nation.
For me, those bonds reflect to what extent we want to look beyond ourselves and our own prospects to those of a wider society. For COVID19 has made it ever clearer that in today’s world we cannot live atomised lives, cut off from others and different ideas and ways of thinking, as much as a modern internet age might enable that to be possible for those who are tempted. We are together, whether we like it or not.
The challenges we face today, most notably on climate change, we will meet collectively or not at all. But in British society we must confront another challenge beyond that facing our planet – the challenge that faces our people. That the simple fact of birth and circumstance still overwhelmingly shapes the lives ahead of us. Seventy-five years after the creation of the NHS and welfare state, perhaps the ultimate manifestations of civil society translated into politics, this represents a mission, to me, whose work is incomplete. Britain is a country where we have long understood a common duty to protect those who have fallen on harder times. We can take pride in that.
But we have understood less the importance of a further common duty – that we will all be stronger if we can create a version of our country where birth and circumstance are removed as a barrier to reaching one’s potential. As a resource, we humans are unique. With most resource, the more you use it, the less there remains. With people, it’s different. The more opportunities we have to use our talent, the more we grow, the better we can become. To waste such a resource goes against our human nature to thrive and contribute, to have meaning in our lives.
Equal access to opportunity is a glue that can bind us all together. It is not a zero sum game. When more people are able to get more opportunities, it doesn’t mean there are fewer opportunities for others. By contrast, unlocked talent is how we create more opportunities for all of us. And more open opportunity, opening up our education and our workplaces, is how we can bring together an ever more diverse Britain, to give us a chance to hear, to understand those different ideas and ways of thinking and living that we may have turned our face against simply through ignorance.
The biggest asset this country has, as for every country, is its people. A civil society flourishes through freedom. And that freedom starts with access to opportunity and the chance for all of us to fulfil our promise and potential. If the 20th century gave Britain the structures to help people when our lives go wrong, let us work to ensure that we will look back on the 21st century as the time when Britain found the ways to help all of us have the chance of a life that can go right, to be a version of this country where, finally, we have equality of opportunity for all.