Skip to main content

What kind of society do we want to live in? How can we help Britain to be and remain that kind of society?

But I want today to set out what is, I believe, at least an important part of the answer.

These are questions with which anyone who is serious about politics is bound to wrestle. They are so difficult that none of us can expect to know the whole answer to either of them.

Much of what I want to say will be familiar to anyone in this audience who is familiar with the speeches on the neighbourly society that I gave in the early 2000s, or with the reports on Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain that Iain Duncan Smith published as part of the Policy Review which I chaired in the lead up to the 2010 election.

But I believe — and I want to explain today why I believe — that the programme of social reform being carried out by David Cameron’s administration makes it the most ambitious, socially reforming government since the Second World War, doing more to answer these questions in the right way than any previous government has done.

Let me start with a story from my own childhood.

Sitting next to my grandmother on the sofa in her home in Chicago, I heard her describe the end of a journey. The year was, I think, 1919 and it had been a long journey for my grandparents — all the way from Kiev via the Baltic to America. A long journey, and arduous; much of it on foot; the last part by ship.

As she stood on the deck of the ship carrying her and my grandfather into New York, she saw before her the statue of Liberty rising above Staten Island. What did that statue mean to her as she gazed at it, with tears rolling down her cheeks? These were tears, no doubt in part of loss, in part of relief, but also (and foremost in her mind as she told me the story) they were tears of hope — the hope that she had at last reached a place where she and my grandfather might have opportunities.

The statue of Liberty symbolised for her not just freedom from oppression but more particularly a land of opportunity. I will not dwell here on the many vicissitudes that in practice befell my grandparents as they strove to make the most of the opportunity that had presented itself. What matters, for my present purposes, is just that first emotion — the hope and joy that is engendered by the ability to write one’s own life story, as Michael Gove so beautifully put it.

And now I want to move to an altogether different time and place.

I recently spent some time in a newly founded studio school in my own West Dorset constituency. It is set in the terrain occupied by Kingston Maurward — an excellent and well known local land-based FE College. The school has been established to provide a first-rate education for young people who are, for one reason or another, more likely to prosper if their academic study is wrapped into the acquisition of practical, land-based skills rather than being behind a more traditional desk.

Going round that school and talking to some of its pupils, one could not fail to be impressed by the sense of opportunity — of prospects opened. I suspect that for some at least of its pupils the more traditional forms of schooling will have proved daunting. The way forward was now being shown to them; the lights along the runway were being lighted to guide them towards take-off.

Talking to the teachers, too, there was a palpable sense of excitement about the enterprise in which they were engaged. They clearly saw themselves as providing those lights along the runway to lift their pupils into a stratosphere of opportunities that might otherwise so easily have been denied to them. What occupation could be more fulfilling than that?

And finally, I want to draw your minds to another setting: the Social Mobility Foundation — a charity founded by Linkson Jack and gradually built up by its trustees, of which I was myself one for a time. Its purpose has been to find means of making it easier for extremely talented but disadvantaged young people to make their way into universities, and ultimately into professions that might otherwise seem unapproachable to them despite their talents and evident fitness.

I remember, years back, attending a seminar about the work of the Foundation held in the offices kindly made available to us by one of Britain’s great law firms. I recall going in through the vast glass doors of the hugely impressive building occupied by that firm as I made my way up to the seminar — and feeling somewhat daunted as I entered. If I, who had been lucky enough to have every conceivable advantage in life, felt that way, what must it have felt like to someone coming from a vastly less advantaged background?

Of course, these three images — of my grandmother gazing up at the statue of Liberty, of the children and teachers in the rural studio school, and of the bright kid from the disadvantaged family being helped through the doors of a great city institution by the Social Mobility Foundation, are very different from one another in a multitude of ways.

But they have this in common: all three are about the opening of opportunities that would otherwise have remained closed; all three are about the liberation of the human spirit. I maintain that any person of goodwill, regardless of their political persuasion, is bound to feel the immense emotional force of that liberation of the spirit.

Arrows are forced by physics towards their target, birds can only seek the sky; but we human-beings have the ability to fashion our own dreams, to formulate our own ambitions. When those dreams and ambitions are thwarted, not by the lack of effort or talent on our own part but by gates that are locked against us, that is a terrible imprisoning of the human spirit. Nothing, therefore, is more moving than when those gates are prised apart for people (like the political prisoners from the dungeons in Beethoven’s Fidelio) to emerge into the welcome light.

But my concern today is not just with the emotional pull to liberate the spirit through opening opportunities to those who would not otherwise have them. My concern is with the implications for government.

What are these implications?

So far as the ends are concerned, the conclusion is, I believe, clear. The answer comes, I believe, in two parts. There is a set of implications about the things governments should seek to achieve, and there is a set of implications about how governments should seek to achieve those things — ends and means.

We need to work towards the creation of a society in which the human spirit is liberated because there is real equality of opportunity for all. That is the kind of society in which we want to live – where an individual with the propensity for hard work has an equal chance of achieving success regardless of where he or she started life.

But there is more to this statement than might at first appear. I want to dwell on the meaning of what I regard as the critical phrase within it — ‘real equality of opportunity’. By ‘real equality of opportunity’, I mean something more than just the appearance of open doors.

I don’t think we can say that two people have an equal opportunity to do something if one of them has been equipped with the skill required to take advantage of that opportunity and the other has not. I don’t think we can say that two people have an equal opportunity to do something if one of them is physically capable of doing it and the other isn’t and hasn’t been able to obtain technology or help to overcome that disability.

I don’t think we can say that two people have an equal opportunity to do something if one of them is subtly (or not so subtly) prevented from doing it because of gender, or sexual orientation, or ethnic origin, or disability, and the other has no such obstacles placed in the way.

So equality of opportunity is a positive, active concept. But, at the same time, it is emphatically not the same as the idea that everything should be made available regardless of personal effort.

Those of us that want to build a society in which there is real equality of opportunity for all want to tear down the barriers that prevent people striving to fulfil their dreams; we want to equip people with the skills and knowledge that they will need if they are to fulfil their particular dreams; but we emphatically do not seek to deliver them their dreams on a plate, free of effort on their part. To be given an opportunity is not the same as being given an outcome; and equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcome. You may ask: ‘why all this emphasis on effort and striving — on the endeavours of the individual — rather than just on the delivery of the dream?’.

There are three reasons.

First, it’s for the sake of society as a whole. Adam Smith’s unseen hand works to help all prosper if each is striving to achieve what he or she is capable of achieving. But none can prosper where each merely demands. This is true not just of the economic prosperity that is created by strivers competing in free markets; it is true also of the beauty and sustainability of our surroundings, the bringing up of our children, the enhancement of our culture and the progress of our science. In every domain, our society as a whole benefits from the actions of strivers.

Second, it’s for the sake of the individuals who participate in our society. The point about the opportunity to fulfil your dreams is precisely that it is an opportunity — taking the opportunity, striving for the fulfilment, is in itself something of inestimable value; the effort is a great part of what is fulfilling about the fulfilment. To put it in Michael Gove’s terms, part of what it is to write your own life story is to have written it yourself — not to have sat idly by while a ghost-writer prepares the manuscript for the publisher.

And third, it’s for the sake of fairness. It is fair that each individual should have the same opportunity as each other individual. Indeed, I cannot think of a more fundamental determinant of fairness than equality of opportunity. But it is not fair if those who, once given the opportunity, stay out of the fray are honoured for their lack of effort in the same way as those who join the heat of battle. Equality of outcome regardless of effort is a form of unfairness.

So much for the meaning of ‘equality of opportunity’. What about the ‘for all’ bit? I have heard people from many different political persuasions — of left and right — dismissing the concept of equality of opportunity on the grounds that it cannot really exist in a society if it does not apply to all the citizens of that society, and that the obstacles to its existence for some are too massive to make that possible. I do not accept this thesis — and I believe it is important that we should firmly reject it.

Let’s take one of the most difficult cases of all — that of a young person caught in the ghastly vortex of dependency on heroin and crack (probably with a cocktail of drink, cannabis and amphetamines thrown in), with a chaotic lifestyle, in the grip of the dealers and their gangs, utterly alienated from family and the mainstream of society, engaged no doubt in a regular rhythm of low level acquisitive crime to support the habit.

How can a person in this appallingly unfortunate position ever join the ranks of those who have equality of opportunity?

I accept that this question sounds difficult to answer. And indeed it is, in practice,  difficult to answer. But, at the same time — pace the cynics — it is possible to answer. It is possible to rescue a person even from this form of life, this deepest of internal imprisonments. We know that this little miracle is possible, because it is being done around us every day — yes, with huge skill by people of huge dedication and against the greatest odds; but it is being done. Even these colossal barriers to opportunity can be removed.

And if they can be removed, so — sometimes also with great difficulty — can the others be. Equality of opportunity FOR ALL is not easily achieved; but it is achievable and so it should be our aim.

I want, in a moment, to turn from this discussion of ends to a discussion of means — what governments can do to achieve equality of opportunity for all.

But, before I do that, I just want to deal with one question that might otherwise be left hanging in some people’s minds and that might distract from the main line of my argument.

This is the question: what about people who lack goodwill? Can we really advocate equality of opportunity for all if some people would misuse that opportunity to strive to fulfil malign ambitions?

And if we seek to solve this conundrum by constricting the ambitions that people can legitimately have, are we not contradicting ourselves by depriving some people of the very ability to pursue their dreams that we supposedly support?

I don’t myself believe that any of these questions are anything like as troubling as they might seem either for those of us whose dispositions are liberal or for those of us who advocate equality of opportunity for all.

The answer is provided by the history of our liberal democracy — and it is crystallised in the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. Our history is one in which our parliaments and our courts — through common law tempered by statute law — have established what Oakeshott describes as ‘adverbial constraints’ on our actions. In other words, our law does not PREscribe what ambitions we should adopt; instead, it PROscribes certain ways of fulfilling those ambitions. We may pursue the fulfilment of any dream — but we cannot do so in a way that involves violence towards others, or other anti- social courses of action. And our constitutional democracy provides a fair and transparent collective method of establishing or modifying those adverbial constraints in law.

So, for completeness, I should redescribe my account of the aim that government should seek as “equality of opportunity for all under the rule of law”.  Now let me turn to the means by which this aim can best be realized and the means by which it is, I believe, progressively being realized in our society today.

Let me start with what I think matters most of all to opportunity: education. Tony Blair said some things I don’t agree with. But he also said some things I very much agree with — and one of them was when he gave education a very high priority, for just this reason.

A proper grounding at school equips someone to take advantage of opportunities in the rest of life in a way that almost nothing else can do. So we owe it to ALL our children that they should have access to a really good school, and one that suits their particular needs.

The reason I mention Tony Blair in this context is that I think it has been over the last several decades (and perhaps it still is) a matter of consensus across the main political parties that the nonsenses of the 1960s must be put firmly behind us, and that we must devote huge efforts to ensuring that every child, everywhere can acquire as many of the fundamental skills and as much of the fundamental knowledge as their abilities enable then to acquire.

This means schools that are at the same time rigorous and imaginative: rigorous in what they demand of their pupils, and imaginative in how they go about enabling their pupils to meet those demands — as in the studio school which I described earlier in this talk. But there is a lot of difference between establishing a consensus about the broad requirement and, on the other hand, fulfilling that requirement in practice. I believe that the reforms that Michael Gove began, and that Nicky Morgan is continuing, constitute the most sustained attempt that this country has seen since the second world war to make a reality of that aspiration for our schools.

And I think that the work which David Willetts began and which Jo Johnson is now carrying forward will come to be seen as the most sustained attempt our country has seen since the 1950s to open opportunities in and through higher education.

But the great thing is that, since 2010, we haven’t focussed only on schools and universities — crucial as these are to our economy, our society and the removing of barriers to opportunity. We have attended with equal vigour to what, for decades, was the almost forgotten element of education — technical and professional training and, above all, apprenticeship.

Over the last half century leading up to 2010, one of the great barriers to opportunity in the UK was the lack of a route through apprenticeship to satisfying and rewarding work. This was in marked contrast to the position in Germany, where the apprenticeship system continued to provide a recognised route for huge numbers of young people throughout those years.

Now, since 2010, we have been steadily building a system of work-experience, traineeships and apprenticeships to provide a ladder of opportunity for hundreds of thousands of young people — a system that will in due course rival Germany’s and will transform not only our ability to compete with the most productive economies in the world but also the prospects for generations of school-leavers.

These reforms of education and training represent a huge step forward in the battle to dismantle the barriers to opportunity in our country. But of course education and training — though fundamental — is not the only thing we all need if we are to make the most of our talents.

We also need to ensure that all of those who emerge ready to join the mainstream have equal opportunities to get a job commensurate with their abilities. Work is not only the best route out of poverty; it is also the route into great and fulfilling achievements. So we need to make sure that the way is open not only for everyone to get work – as we are beginning to do with a record low in the number of workless households – but also for those who enter the world of work to progress in their chosen careers, making their way to the very top if that is what they are intrinsically capable of doing.

We need to do many things — and many things that are now beginning to be done — to make this more of a reality.

We have committed ourselves to significant increases in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic participation, including a 20% increase in the number of workers in employment, a 20% increase in the proportion of apprenticeships undertaken, and a 20% increase in the number of students going to university. George Bridges and I have taken responsibility for working with colleagues in all the relevant departments of the government to make sure that we focus on these ambitions, and on identifying the particular barriers that are getting in the way of fulfilling them — so that we can together remove those barriers.

For example, in the Department of Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel have been leading ground-breaking work to identify particular ethnic groups within which either men or women face particularly low work- participation rates. And work is now underway to identify the particular barriers that are blocking access to work for those groups.

Then there are general moves that we need to make to open employment opportunities for all. As the Prime Minister pointed out in his Party Conference speech earlier this year, “even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call-backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names”. So we must act to remove that unfair barrier.

And I’m proud to say that my colleague Matt Hancock in the Cabinet Office has been leading the way in doing just that across Whitehall. The Civil Service is now moving fast towards using name-blind recruitment as the default.

Then there are cases in which politicians need to lead by active example — such as by bringing more women and more representatives of the various  Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities into Parliament. We have made great strides in this over recent years, across the political spectrum — and I am convinced that organisations like Operation Black Vote, which I have myself strongly supported, can make a big difference going forward.

And it isn’t just in Parliament that we need to see more women and more ethnic minority candidates reaching the top. As Trevor Phillips recently re-emphasised, we need to do much, much more to crack through the glass ceilings that remain in our professions and in our board-rooms. What was once exceptional, and is still too rare needs to become a norm, so that people of all kinds beginning their careers can see the prospect of real success opening up before them if they put in the effort to achieve it.

Getting educated, getting trained, getting a job, making progress in a career, making the way to as near the top as your talents and efforts make possible — all of these are hugely important components of what it is to have the opportunity to write your own life story.

But there is, of course, much more to life than learning and working. It is in our families and amongst our friends that we human beings find our chief solace, our greatest support, our most profound attachments. We need of course to remove the remaining barriers to the full enjoyment of a rich family and social life for all — as we did, for example, through the introduction of same-sex marriage. This, too, is a part of providing equal opportunity for all.

But the formation of a family and social life is something that typically takes place in a place. And this brings us to the settings within which so much of that family and social life is inevitably carried on — our homes.

As Greg Clark has recently said, we must avoid the temptation to talk of homes as if they were mere matters of bricks and mortar. They are much, much more than that.

For many of us, the various homes in which we have lived bear the indelible imprints of the various stages of our lives. The finding and establishment of a home — and indeed the opportunity, however gradually, to acquire a home of one’s own is one of the great opportunities of life.

This is not something that should be available only to the privileged few. It should be available to all. The housing ladder should become, for all our citizens, a ladder of opportunity.

That means doing all of the many things this Government is already doing with huge energy and determination — opening the way for hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built, and opening the way for young people of modest means to climb onto the ladder through starter homes, part equity, Help to Buy, Right to Buy and a series of measures to make it easier for house-builders (including self-builders) to build homes at costs people can afford to pay.

But it also means doing the most exciting thing of all — working with the residents of the most disfavoured estates to provide them with new hope of a new life by transforming the physical condition of those estates in the way that the Prime Minister set out just a few days ago. As he so poignantly described, “within these estates, behind front doors families build warm and welcoming homes just like everyone else. But step outside and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high”. So we have adopted the colossal ambition to “work in partnership with residents, housing associations, local authorities, social enterprises and private developers, and sweep away the barriers that prevent regeneration”.

For most of us, the great opportunities of our society (cultural as well as economic) can be opened up through these very things — the provision of a good education and of first-rate vocational training, followed by an open route through a chosen career as well as access to the housing ladder and to the savings and pensions that secure us in old age. That is what those lucky enough to start and remain in the mainstream most need.

But not everyone is so lucky. Some start with colossal disadvantages. Some fall, for one reason or another, out of the mainstream. For people in these positions, too, the years since 2010 have seen great moves forward.

We are fostering a hugely ambitious programme of social reform to remove barriers to opportunity for those with the greatest disadvantages.

The list of action in this area stretches right across government. There is the Troubled Families programme, now vastly expanded. There is the rolling out of Universal Credit. There is the Work Programme, now evolving into the Work and Health Programme. There is the reform of disability benefits and of ESA. There is the refocussing of drug and alcohol treatment on recovery and abstinence. There is the establishment of an entirely new rehabilitation programme for prisoners.

To these must be added not only many other existing programmes and policies (in areas from adoption and child protection, to the widening of access, to talking therapies for the mentally ill) but also the list of new measures identified by the Prime Minister in that remarkable speech on Life Chances just a few days ago:

•increased investment in preventative relationship support;

•a new emphasis on parenting skills in the Troubled Families programme;

•newly recruited mentors for young people;

•a huge new investment in mental healthcare; and • a new voucher scheme for parenting classes;

•the expansion of the National Citizens Service to bring many more young people from all backgrounds together in joint social endeavour;

•a new effort to ensure that arts organisations engage with those who might otherwise believe that culture is not for them;

•a new social investment Outcomes Fund to encourage the development of new treatment options for alcoholism and drug addiction.

I am conscious that, in describing these measures to open opportunity to the least advantaged, I am leaving to one side other, vastly important questions such as the questions of technique — the extent to which we have chosen to use, in many cases, the Big Society rather than the Big State to carry forward these programmes; the extent to which we have in many cases sought to use ‘nudge’ rather than clunky (and often less effective) regulation; the extent to which we have brought in new methods of social finance through social impact bonds and Big Society Capital.

But my purpose today has not been to focus on the technical and administrative questions which form so large a part of my working week. Rather, my purpose has been to identify the ambition of this Government, the range of activity in which this Government has engaged in pursuit of that ambition, and the extent to which that range of activity forms a coherent project of social reform.

We have before our eyes a clear aim which we believe to be in the interest of the whole country, in the interest of justice and fairness, in the interest of social cohesion and social stability, and in the interest of our economy through increasing its ability to harness the full talents of our people.

None of this is about offering an easy ride or making excuses for anti-social behaviour. It is about removing barriers and helping people to make their own way through their own efforts, justly appreciated and justly rewarded. It is a massive, sustained, consistent, courageous attempt to create a society in which there is genuine equality of opportunity.

The Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP is Minister for the Cabinet Office