Supporters of free trade and globalisation must respond to the anxieties of ordinary people to stem the growth of anti-liberal forces on the extreme right and left, Theresa May has said.
In a speech to global political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mrs May warned they would have to secure public consent for an economic system which she said had delivered “unprecedented levels of wealth” but left many people feeling “locked out and left behind”.
She set out what she termed a “manifesto for change” to ensure “free trade and globalisation work for everyone”.
Businesses must pay their fair share of taxes, invest in communities and address concerns about high executive pay, said the Prime Minister.
Governments must take a “new active role”, intervening in the economy to ensure that the benefits of success are shared by all and to support communities undermined by a “cult of individualism”.
Mrs May said her plans for change would be reflected in the Government’s industrial strategy - expected to be published next week - which would address “long-standing and structural weaknesses in our economy” to spread the benefits of wealth creation around the country.
“Our strategy is not about propping up failing industries or picking winners, but creating the conditions where winners can emerge and grow,” said Mrs May.
“It is about backing those winners all the way to encourage them to invest in the long-term future of Britain, and about delivering jobs and economic growth to every community and corner of the country.
“We can’t leave all this to international market forces alone, or just rely on an increase in overall prosperity. Instead, we have to be practical and proactive - in other words, we have to step up and take control - to ensure free trade and globalisation work for everyone.”
While those at Davos were united in regarding free trade and globalisation as “overwhelmingly positive” forces, for many ordinary people they represent threats to their jobs, wages and communities which make them “fearful”, said Mrs May.
“In their minds, it means watching as those who prosper seem to play by a different set of rules, while for many, life remains a struggle as they get by, but don’t necessarily get on.”
She warned that extremists on right and left were “seeking to exploit this opportunity” by embracing the politics of “division and despair”.
Speaking to an audience of people who might be thought to fit her description of “citizens of the world (who are) citizens of nowhere”, Mrs May said: “We must never forget that our first responsibility as governments it to serve the people.
“And it is my firm belief that we - as governments, international institutions, businesses and individuals - need to do more to respond to the concerns of those who feel that the modern world has left them behind.”