And she declared that Brexit gave Britain a “once-in-a-generation chance” to decide “what kind of country we want to be”.
“We have a unique opportunity and responsibility to deliver the change that people need,” she said
Mainstream politicians have allowed unfairness and division to grow by ignoring the legitimate concerns of ordinary people for too long
She spoke of her desire to build a “shared society” with “fairness and solidarity at its heart” where everyone can benefit from the prosperity generated by economic growth.
Excluding many sections of society from that prosperity had helped to breed extremist political movements, she warned.
Bank of England governor Mark Carney
“Britain is going through a period of great national change, and as we do so we have a once-in-a-generation chance to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be,” she told her audience of charity chiefs gathered at the headquarters of the Royal Society.
Mrs May warned that a failure of mainstream, centre-ground politics to respond to public concerns “would further entrench the very divisions we seek to overcome”.
“For we know what happens when mainstream, centre-ground politics fails,” she said.
“People embrace the fringe – the politics of division and despair. They turn to those who offer easy answers – who claim to understand people’s problems and always know what – and who – to blame.”
In a swipe at her predecessors, Mrs May said the failure of centre-ground politicians to listen to voters concerns had bred the anti-establishment backlash.
“We see those fringe voices gaining prominence in some countries across Europe today – voices from the hard-left and the far-right stepping forward and sensing that this is their time.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron
She said politicians had “embraced the twin pillars of liberalism and globalisation as the great forces for good that they are” but failed to understand that many people on low incomes were “not thrilled” about changes to their communities.
She said growing global free trade “works well for a privileged few, but failed to ensure that the prosperity generated by free markets and free trade is shared by everyone, in every corner and community of their land.”
Mrs May also defended an attack made in her Tory conference speech last October on figures in the international elite who see themselves as “citizens of nowhere”.
The jibe was seen at time as swipe at Canadian-born Bank of England governor Mark Carney, among others.
“A few months ago at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, I upset some by saying that if you think you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said.
“But my point was simple. It was that the very word ‘citizen’ implies that we have responsibilities to the people around us.
“And too often today, those responsibilities have been forgotten as the cult of individualism has taken hold, and globalisation and the democratisation of communications has encouraged people to look beyond their own communities and immediate networks in the name of joining a broader global community.”
Mrs May also set out a series of measures to improve treatment of mental health in a drive to tackle the “hidden injustices” in British society that hold many people back.
Her measures included more support for schools and employers to identify and help people with mental health problems.
Answering questions from the audience at the end of her speech, Mrs May insisted she rejected claims that Britain had to choose between a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
“I’m tempted to say that the people who are getting it wrong are the ones who are printing that I am talking about a hard Brexit,” she said.
Theresa May at the Conservative annual conference
“We are going to get an ambitious, good, best possible deal for the UK in terms of trading with and operating within the Single European Market.
“But it will be a new relationship because we won’t be members of the EU anymore.
“We will be outside the European Union and therefore we will be negotiating a new