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18 May 2024

There is such a thing as society

To fix this country after 14 years of Tory ruin, we’re going to need to start saying as much.

By Jonn Elledge

One of the most famous phrases attributed to Margaret Thatcher is something she never quite actually said. Douglas Keay, who despite being named Douglas was a journalist for Woman’s Own, seems to have tidied up the then prime minister’s words to make for a punchier quote. But Thatcher did complain that too many in the UK were in the habit of blaming their problems on society, and asked, in the middle of a monologue that ran to nearly 900 words, “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.” She may not have said precisely the words “there is no such thing as society” – but it is pretty clear, from that 1987 interview and from everything else about her, that she believed them. 

So have her successors. Eighteen years and five Tory leaders later, David Cameron tried to finesse this position for a gentler, cuddlier age, telling his party that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”. But if the words were kinder, the policies were not. The “Big Society” was just a more palatable way of describing austerity, rolling back the state and expecting other, unspecified groups to step into the breach. This may have worked, for a while, in Cotswolds villages whose residents had money and time and relatively few major social problems; it was not so effective elsewhere. After 14 years that have somehow left the country both worse and more expensive, it should be abundantly clear there was a reason we replaced a safety net based on mercurial philanthropic impulses with universal provision in the first place.

We can debate whether this philosophy won elections because it reflected public attitudes, or whether those attitudes have merely been shaped by long Tory decades in power. What does feel clear, though, is that this penny-pinching attitude, the objection to spending taxpayer money on anything one might term “the public good”, has come to dominate British political culture. And the result is that the country is coming apart. 

You don’t have to look far for examples. Just this week, the Telegraph economics writer Jeremy Warner launched a broadside against Britain’s university sector, using a column obsessing, predictably, about immigration to ask, “Do we actually need a university sector of such size and variable quality?” The notions that a more educated population may be a good thing in itself, which a lucrative British export industry is allowing us to fund, or that allowing institutions he sneers at to collapse might have negative consequences somewhere down the line, seem not to have occurred to him. All that matters is getting immigration numbers down and ensuring the Treasury doesn’t have to pay the price. There is no such thing as society: there are only individuals and their wallets.

Consider, too, our national attitude to capital spending, the creation of the social or physical infrastructure a country needs to thrive. Under Labour we built some, but used a variety of tricks like “private finance initiatives” to keep it off the books. Under the Tories we’ve hardly built any, because investment was easier to cut than current spending, and the consequences would be borne by someone else. (Claims that privatisation alone is to blame for the current sewage-in-water crisis run aground on the fact it’s hard to imagine the Treasury would have funded the necessary improvements either.)

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Again, schools and hospitals, and sewers and trams, are things that would benefit us all, by boosting growth or simply by making the country slightly less crap. But again, one of the reasons we haven’t built them is because much of the ruling party is unconvinced it’s the job of the government to pay for such things. It would be immoral, we were told, to pass debt on to the next generation. Handing them a country that simply doesn’t work, by contrast, is apparently fine.

Or consider, come to that, our approach to those who in one way or another depend on the state for their livelihood. Inadequately funded welfare systems create poverty with all the social problems and costs that flow from it. Falling public-sector wages have both hit recruitment and retention, and meant less pressure on private employers to pay higher wages. But our political model ignores such things: our policies are shaped instead by a more “prudent” mixture of bean counting and spite. 

It’s easy to blame this entirely on a Tory party that has governed Britain for 32 of the last 45 years, not to mention a Treasury that will never opt to pay £10bn for something that works when it can pay £9.9bn for something which doesn’t. But I think there’s a broader political culture problem, too. The interview clip that went viral in the last few days, in which Janet Street-Porter accused Rishi Sunak of hating pensioners after he had the gall to produce a single Budget that offered them no handouts, is a reminder our politics has become transactional. Too many voters will support only those things which clearly benefit them. Those that do not, they oppose. 

To steal another line from the pre-Downing Street David Cameron, we can’t go on like this. There are things that the state should fund because they benefit us all. Local government, which can make towns nicer, more prosperous places, rather than rolling from crisis to crisis and doing their best to manage decline. An educated and healthy population, which can actually afford to live. There is such a thing as society. To fix this country, we’re going to need to start saying as much.

 [See also: The unlikely alliance of Robert F Kennedy Jr and Russell Brand]

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