The words “There is no such thing as society” were used against Margaret Thatcher more than any other she ever uttered. Even now the remark inspires fits of self-righteous apoplexy in her critics.
This recently-published book by Andy McSmith about the Thatcher years is titled There is No Such Thing as Society, suggesting how deeply controversial those words remain. I haven’t read it, and I insist on principle upon being open-minded about any book I’ve not yet actually read. The book’s product description on Amazon, however, is typical of the mischaracterization and disingenuous use of ellipses I often see when this remark is discussed:
Thatcherism took the politics out of politics and created vast differences between rich and poor, but no expectation that the existence of such gross inequalities was a problem that society or government could solve — because as Mrs. Thatcher said, ‘There is no such thing as society … people must look to themselves first.’
Right then. “Took the politics out of politics”–no idea what that means; the phrase is so empty I can’t even criticize it. “Vast differences between rich and poor”–well, yes, before Thatcher everyone was poor, so fair enough. (I simplify, and there’s some truth to the charge that the poor got poorer under Thatcher, but you get my point. For a more nuanced discussion, read my book.)
Now, as for the infamous remark and this book’s title, let’s look at what she actually said, in context. It takes but .00001 seconds of Googling to find the whole thing, so there’s really no excuse for deliberately distorting it.
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. And the worst things we have in life, in my view, are where children who are a great privilege and a trust—they are the fundamental great trust, but they do not ask to come into the world, we bring them into the world, they are a miracle, there is nothing like the miracle of life—we have these little innocents and the worst crime in life is when those children, who would naturally have the right to look to their parents for help, for comfort, not only just for the food and shelter but for the time, for the understanding, turn round and not only is that help not forthcoming, but they get either neglect or worse than that, cruelty.
How do you set about teaching a child religion at school, God is like a father, and she thinks “like someone who has been cruel to them?” It is those children you cannot … you just have to try to say they can only learn from school or we as their neighbour have to try in some way to compensate. This is why my foremost charity has always been the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, because over a century ago when it was started, it was hoped that the need for it would dwindle to nothing and over a hundred years later the need for it is greater, because we now realise that the great problems in life are not those of housing and food and standard of living. When we have got all of those, when we have got reasonable housing when you compare us with other countries, when you have got a reasonable standard of living and you have got no-one who is hungry or need be hungry, when you have got an education system that teaches everyone—not as good as we would wish—you are left with what? You are left with the problems of human nature, and a child who has not had what we and many of your readers would regard as their birthright—a good home—it is those that we have to get out and help, and you know, it is not only a question of money as everyone will tell you; not your background in society. It is a question of human nature and for those children it is difficult to say: “You are responsible for your behaviour!” because they just have not had a chance and so I think that is one of the biggest problems and I think it is the greatest sin.
Like I said, I’m not going to judge the book without reading it. I’ll judge whoever wrote that PR blurb, however. There goes yet another lazy, mendacious socialist nimrod.
God must love the lazy, mendacious socialist nimrods; he made so many of them.