Those Seven Little Words: Thatcher Misquoted?

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“There is no such thing as society.” – Margaret Thatcher

If there is one thing that Margaret Thatcher may regret having said whilst Prime Minister, it is likely to have been “There is no such thing as society.” In the 26 years since the infamous Womens Own interview, her detractors have used that quote as an open goal to attack Thatcherism as an atomistic conception of society, a socially-Darwinian dystopia where those with the skills to survive thrive, and those without fall by the wayside. In their eyes, whole generations and communities were failed by the policies of her administration – lacking the skills to compete in cold Britannia, they were ignored, even demonised, by a Thatcherite consensus.

Critics have claimed that the British sense of fair play – the romantic ideal of a village or estate coming together to help one another when times get tough, was fundamentally challenged by this consensus. Most recently, Glenda Jackson MP stated in the House of Commons that Thatcherism represented “everything I had been taught to regard as a vice – and I still regard them as vices… greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees. They were the way forward.” [1]

Even those sympathetic to Thatcher’s economic legacy have pointed to that singular sentence as an example of her social failing. “Yes”, they have argued, “the mines needed to close, but they could have been closed in a kinder way – she only cared about economics.” They do have a point – the closure of the mines did leave scars, yet let us not disregard the fact that mining employment had been in slow decline from its 1920s high, and that more mines closed under the Wilson Labour government than in the 1980s.

Yet more important is the idea that Thatcher was an uncaring woman with a heart of ice, an idea which is fundamentally misplaced. In fact, if we look at the interview itself we find a far more nuanced opinion of society, which differentiates between ‘society’ and ‘communities’.

“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.” [2]

The ‘society’ described by Thatcher was fundamentally an extension of the state, increasingly viewed as a comfort blanket rather than a safety net, acting as a disincentive for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions. “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!” [3]

Conversely, Thatcher idealised communities, perhaps due to her Methodist upbringing. Within communities, individuals came together when necessary to help those who needed it. Unlike ‘society’, the close bonds and personal involvement meant that people recognised that what they took out, someone else had had to put in. Unlike society, which was remote and cold, communities were close and warm; yes, they were ultimately made up of individuals, but these individuals had a strong social connection, the ‘living tapestry of men and women’, that was strongest when it was based on individual choice and mutual respect.

This is a view shared by Charles Moore, who claims that Thatcher “was in favour of people being free to make more money because then they would be better able to help themselves and their neighbours. “Far from weakening social ties, successful enterprise strengthened them”, whilst “too much government had weakened the social institutions which best foster self-respect and respect for others – families, churches, schools, voluntary associations.” [4]

Ultimately it seems that these seven words will paint a portrait of Thatcher so convincing to some that it cannot be persuasively questioned. She may have said that there was no such thing as society, and there is no reason to think she didn’t believe it. However, this did not make her uncaring; she simply believed in a different conception of the term.

In social bonds there were rights, but there were also responsibilities. Social bonds were just that; bonds, between individuals, not between individuals and something above them. This fact, the biggest of the Thatcher myths, should be addressed in the aftermath of her passing, since it is often linked closely to all subsequent Thatcherite creeds.

By: David Jeffery