Shoehorn With Teeth

by Quinn

“There is no such thing as society”, Margaret Thatcher once declared, and people are still getting worked up about it. Chris Dillow points to a few posts taking Thatcher to task for her statement, but personally defends her by stating she is expounding methodological individualism. Norman Geras refutes this by asserting that there is two-way causality, while Daniel Finkelstein feels that to him, as a situationist, Thatcher’s statement is profoundly unhelpful. I have only the vaguest inkling what the hell they’re all going on about, so I will tackle this in the manner I know best; for me the line is just an example of Thatcher jibbering nonsense.

Why? Well on one level there is clearly such a thing as society, because the Oxford English Dictionary says so. Thatcher was pretty iconoclastic, but even she never tried to overrule the OED; she wouldn’t dare (who would). There is also a Wikipedia entry on “society”, where an online community has somehow collaborated to create an article that, funnily enough, doesn’t appear to refer to Margaret Thatcher at all, almost as if society itself doesn’t acknowledge her.

Society, ultimately, is just a word, and it can only exist if it is useful and means something; and it does. For example, I think it is true to say that British society is less racist now than it was twenty years ago; you may disagree with me, but even if you do you still understand what I mean. It is a generalisation for sure, I am not saying that society is one homogonous, anti-racist blob and that there aren’t individual racists out there – we all know of colleagues, acquaintances and professional footballers who are – but it is still a useful shorthand and an example of how the word can be of relevance.

And do you know who agrees with me? One Margaret Thatcher. Of course she does. Otherwise, why does Wikiquote record that she stated in 1984 that

I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society — from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.

So her “one deliberate intent” as prime minister was to change the nature of something she didn’t believe in? I suppose she subsequently could have changed her mind – the “no such thing as society” quote was made three years later – but a quick search of her archives reveals over a thousand recorded instances where she referred to “society”, most recently in 2003, when she said

The wonderful thing about a free market is that it allows people to pursue their own interests and at the same time automatically advance every one else’s interests. As Adam Smith taught, it is not through the benevolence of people, but through their intelligent self interest that society as a whole becomes wealthier.

So does she think that the free market improves the wealth of something that doesn’t exist? Clearly not. So if she does accept the validity of the term “society”, what was she wibbling on about before? Tell you what; let’s have a look at what she actually said.

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.

And it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—”It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!” There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”

But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

For me, this in not really an attack on the concept of society; rather Thatcher’s target is those people who have stopped viewing the welfare state as a safety net but have instead chosen it as a way of life, and see it as an entitlement without any obligation. I think she is saying that people have a responsibility to look after themselves if they can and that the existence of government doesn’t absolve you of this responsibility, but she also states that we should help others; it’s just that even where government can help it is only able to do so because of other individuals who fulfil their responsibilities, and that these entitlements and responsibilities are a two-way street, which is why you can’t have one without the other. If she believes that people look after themselves first, then this is largely because we do. If we can ignore that infamous, stupid line, then I don’t actually think she is saying that there is no such thing as society at all, just qualifying what society is or should be about; she is not so much refuting the idea of society as defining what it is. And if I have accurately summarised what she is saying, then in many ways I agree with her, which makes me feel quite sick.

I think it is also important to remember where she made these comments. This was no prepared landmark speech to a conference drafted by a team of writers, but an off-the-cuff remark in an interview with Woman’s Own. She probably never even thought that the “no such thing” line would be seen as a rallying call to self-interest by the right, or viewed as an assault on the concept of community by the left, it just tripped off her tongue on the spur of the moment. I doubt it was meant to be taken that much to heart, and she probably never imagined we would be still be discussing it now, twenty years on, although I am sure she is chuffed to bits that we are. I’m not sure she ever really thought – or thought out – the idea that there is no such thing as society; but if you say “there is no such thing as society” then it isn’t too surprising if people get the impression that that is what you think.

Remember who we are talking about here, remember what we know of her; the woman’s a fucking idiot, to put it mildly. She was making a valid point, but expressed herself appallingly badly, so I don’t think we should be dancing on the head of a pin arguing about exactly what she meant in this instance and whether she was right or wrong. Let’s just try and forget about her shall we; because as a society we’re better off without her.