Essential Thatcherisms: “There is No Such Thing as Society”

 

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.

There are 14 comments.

  1. Profile Photo Member

    I’ve read this quote numerous times. It is usually accompanied by by massive quantities of indignation. I always imagined it to mean exactly what Lady Thatcher meant it to mean.

    And down here in Real Life, there really is no such thing as society.

    • #1
    • October 10, 2010, at 7:33 AM PDT
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  2. Mel Foil Inactive

    For someone to be on the dole out of laziness is bad enough. But to be on the dole, lazy, and ungrateful too, is doubly insulting (to the working chumps that pay the bills.) It’s intolerable in a just society.

    • #2
    • October 10, 2010, at 8:23 AM PDT
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  3. Scott R Member

    Wonder what Claire made of the Cameron speech to the Tory conference, which touched on some of these themes. Pretty bold and impressive, I thought, given expectations–“We’re the radicals now,” “Transfer of power from gov’t to the individual,” etc.

    • #3
    • October 10, 2010, at 9:02 AM PDT
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  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    What’s amazing is how the sense of the passage is totally inverted by the disingenuous excerpting. When I read the whole quote the message I get is,

    “We can’t blame ‘society’ for how we treat others. Each of us has a personal responsibility as moral beings to treat others well.” This is an other-regarding message if there ever was one.

    To twist this into “There is no ‘society’ so we should not regard others” is sick.

    • #4
    • October 10, 2010, at 10:29 AM PDT
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  5. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: …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.)

    In the final analysis, this is what slays me about leftist economics. It’s clear that they do, in practice, wish for everyone to be poor rather than for there to be any observable economic inequality. You see this when Fidel Castro says that no one complains that there are no millionaires in Cuba; you see this in the moralizing about slums in India as there had been none before India’s rejection of socialism; you see this every time someone types or utters the cringe-worthy phrase “McMansion.” They confuse poverty with nobility, uneconomic activity with authenticity, and are more than willing to drag the rest of humanity into their fever dreams.

    • #5
    • October 10, 2010, at 10:39 AM PDT
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  6. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive

    Re: “Took the politics out of politics,” that sounds much more apt to describe the totalitarian impulses of the left than Margaret Thatcher!

    • #6
    • October 10, 2010, at 10:41 AM PDT
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  7. Andrew Alain Inactive

    Reminds me of a term I particularly loath: ‘social justice’. There’s no such thing. Justice is something for individuals, though you can do a lot of injustice in the name of ‘social justice’.

    • #7
    • October 11, 2010, at 2:44 AM PDT
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  8. Andrew Alain Inactive

    And to shamelessly suck up, I just finished your book Claire (fist thing I got on my new Kindle). Don’t spend those royalties all in one place. I think you really captured the essence of Lady Thatcher. I also appreciate the way you put your own personality into your writing (at least the personality that we know and love here).

    • #8
    • October 11, 2010, at 2:51 AM PDT
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  9. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: What’s amazing is how the sense of the passage is totally inverted by the disingenuous excerpting. When I read the whole quote the message I get is,

    “We can’t blame ‘society’ for how we treat others. Each of us has a personal responsibility as moral beings to treat others well.” This is an other-regarding message if there ever was one.

    To twist this into “There is no ‘society’ so we should not regard others” is sick. · Oct 10 at 10:29am

    Edited on Oct 10 at 10:32 am

    Exactly, exactly, exactly. And that’s the only possible way to read it.

    • #9
    • October 11, 2010, at 12:11 PM PDT
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  10. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Scott Reusser: Wonder what Claire made of the Cameron speech to the Tory conference, which touched on some of these themes. Pretty bold and impressive, I thought, given expectations–“We’re the radicals now,” “Transfer of power from gov’t to the individual,” etc. · Oct 10 at 9:02am

    He may be able to talk the talk, but since his Ankara speech, I’ve been unable to view him as a man of principle. Perhaps unfair to judge him entirely by that, but any man who could come here and say those things with a straight face is either desperately ignorant, badly advised, or abjectly cynical.

    • #10
    • October 11, 2010, at 12:14 PM PDT
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  11. Jonathan Matthew Gilbert Member

    Unfortunately, the PR blurbs are…accurate representations of the material. I read 3/4 of it (at one point actually chucking it across the room), then skimmed the rest in disgust. It’s not really worth the time. I wish I had cleaned my bathroom tile instead.

    • #11
    • October 11, 2010, at 12:30 PM PDT
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  12. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    The distortion of Thatcher’s “society” quote sounds much like the distortion of something Calvin Coolidge allegedly said in a speech back in 1925: “The business of America is business.”

    What Coolidge actually said in that speech – given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors – was this:

    There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world.
    • #12
    • October 12, 2010, at 1:28 AM PDT
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  13. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    Continuing my previous comment, Coolidge added:

    We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists.

    Nonetheless, college history textbooks continue to parrot the altered, out of context version of what Coolidge said. After all, the messianic FDR must have his devil from whom he saved America.

    • #13
    • October 12, 2010, at 1:32 AM PDT
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  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Mike LaRoche: Continuing my previous comment, Coolidge added:
    We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists.
    Nonetheless, college history textbooks continue to parrot the altered, out of context version of what Coolidge said. After all, the messianic FDR must have his devil from whom he saved America. · Oct 11 at 1:32pm

    Edited on Oct 11 at 01:33 pm

    Trying to picture Silent Cal as the devil gives new meaning to the phrase “poor devil”.

    • #14
    • October 12, 2010, at 1:38 AM PDT
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