It was a pleasant surprise for the Members of the Club de Madrid on Sunday to hear that Prime Minister Theresa May had adopted the term Shared Society for her vision of the future of the UK. For exactly ten years ago, that expression was adopted by the Club de Madrid for one of its major programs, a program supported by the European Commission as well as other donors. Our Shared Societies concept presented a broad vision of the kind of societies we need across the world if we are to overcome the stresses and strains of inter-group distrust, hostility and, too often, violence.
The Club de Madrid is a network of over 100 former Presidents and Prime Ministers who have come together to deal with some of the major challenges of the day. Ten years ago, we affirmed that the phenomenon of divided societies is one of the most important issues of our time. That is even truer today. We have warned of the dangers of leaving people behind and not including them, whether they be minorities who face discrimination and prejudice or parts of the majority community who see their world changing around them due to economic and demographic adjustments. That warning, alas, has too often been ignored. Too often the very groups that have been marginalized are also the ones that are blamed for all the ills of society and turned into scapegoats. This leads to a vicious circle, where those who have been left behind nurture resentments that can keep growing until the very fabric of society becomes threatened.
A "Shared Society" is neither a tautology nor a truism, for the very simple reason that it remains (at best) as an ideal, rather than a reality in far too many countries across the world. For the whole last decade, the Club de Madrid has worked to give substance to this vision of a Shared Society in which people feel that they belong, that their contribution is valued and their voice can be heard. That means people should feel they are respected and accepted on their own terms, that they are supported in fulfilling their aspirations, provided they do not conflict with the basic values of society at large. Fundamentally, we all share very similar aspirations - to have a reasonable quality of life, to be accepted and respected by the wider society and, as parents, to give our children a good start in life. A fair society should offer a level playing field for people to fulfil their aspirations according to their talents, skills and willingness to put forth effort, not present them with unsurmountable barriers from the moment of their birth.
In terms of practical implementation, the Club de Madrid has identified ten key areas that all must be addressed, calling them simply the "Ten Commitments for Shared Societies". No single strategy alone can achieve a Shared Society, not even providing services to people in more efficient ways (which should be done as a matter of course). There are numerous ways in which people can become disenfranchised and marginalized. For example, many of those who have been involved in violent extremism (another area of concern for the Club de Madrid) have been second or third generation immigrants, had received good educations, held jobs, spoke the language of the host community and still felt excluded. For some reason, they had failed to develop a sense of solidarity with the rest of society. Rightly or wrongly, they did not feel valued and respected by Government, media and by their neighbours, but sought instead a sense of identity and purpose in hating and harming the very societies that had nurtured them. Even among the mainstream of society (possibly because of a feeling of economic exclusion), many have sought refuge in the fuelling of old prejudices and paranoia, falling easy prey to cheap populists preaching xenophobia, exclusion, insularity, and isolationism. There is no magic wand for creating shared societies. It takes political will, popular support, and serious effort on the part of everybody. Any society unwilling to put forth such efforts does so at its peril.
In this, government has an important role to play, and it must do more than just "get out of the way". Prime Minister May has argued for an active government that will step up and champion the things that matter to people, and that is a worthy goal that any government worth its salt should try and strive for. Giving an active role to government, however, is not the same as advocating "big government" that would take over everything. Since the concept of Shared Societies is non-ideological, we talk about an "enabling government". This allows the concept to be adapted to different political systems, even ones as different from each other as China and the USA, since people can relate to it. While there are things that only Governments can tackle, there are others where the Government's role is to support local communities in doing what they do best -organising their own affairs and ensuring that they include all parts of the community in that process.
The UN Agenda 2030, incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals, very much reflects the Shared Societies Concept when it uses the phrases "realizing the future we want for all" and "leaving no one behind". It is not enough to focus on one disadvantaged group and ignore others, for that would only lead to new resentments and frustrations. Leaving no one behind means just what it says, which is to deprive no one of the opportunity to contribute to society.
When everyone is involved and encouraged, they become an asset to society and a contributor to the common good, rather than being a drain or a liability. For example, cutting down on anti-social behaviour would be far more cost-effective than building more prisons.
The Club de Madrid is greatly encouraged to see a head of government adopt the concept of Shared Societies that we have been advocating for the past ten years. Contrary to what some have suggested, the concept, far from being vacuous, just needs to be translated into concrete action plans by any government that is ready to adopt it. As former political leaders of countries from across the world, we encourage all current leaders to take the goal of shared societies to heart and to do everything in their power to put it into action.
President, World Leadership Alliance / Club de Madrid
President of Latvia, 1999-2007