September 27, 2010


No Such Thing as Society: a good time to ask what Margaret Thatcher really meant: Charles Moore reviews No Such Thing As Society, a look at Margaret Thatcher Arthur Scargill and the politics of the 1980s. (Charles Moore, 27 Sep 2010, Daily Telegraph)

What Mrs Thatcher said was this: “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’ … and so they are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? 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 after our neighbour … and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.” A little further on, she repeated her point, using the exact words, “There is no such thing as society”.

To her opponents, this phrase captured her heartless individualism and her bourgeois smugness. “She was too blunt,” says McSmith, in the last paragraph of his book, “in telling people that in order to maximise economic efficiency, it was necessary to destroy many of the social ties that kept people in interdependency.”

Yet Mrs Thatcher was saying almost exactly the opposite. If she were a 21st-century person, she would have avoided the misunderstanding by using that gesture of wiggling one’s fingers in the air to indicate quotation marks round the word in question. She was attacking the then-current use of “society”, which was often expressed in the phrase: “Society is to blame.”

She cared passionately about social order and social obligations, and was hostile to the egoistic hedonism of the Sixties. In inspecting the use of the word “society”, she was behaving like the scientist which, by education, she was. “What is this substance made of?” she was asking, and she tried to supply the answer. Once people understood that society was made up of them, rather than having some mysterious independent existence, they would have more sense of their obligations, more care for their neighbour.

Indeed, large parts of the interview were devoted to Mrs Thatcher’s anxiety that too much government had weakened the social institutions which best foster self-respect and respect for others – families, churches, schools, voluntary associations. She was in favour of people being free to make more money because then they would be better able to help themselves and therefore their neighbours. Far from weakening social ties, she believed, successful enterprise strengthened them. Business was not an amoral force, but an important part of what Mr Cameron now invites us to call the Big Society.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2010 6:22 PM
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