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“There is such a thing as society”. Has Boris Johnson repudiated Thatcherism?

The former prime minister’s philosophy was more nuanced and complex than a single quote made it appear.   

By Robert Saunders

When Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer in 1987 that, “There is no such thing as society”, she lit a fire that has burned through British politics ever since. In a vain attempt at damage limitation, her office issued a clarification of her remarks to the press, but the phrase quickly entered political folklore. For her critics, it became a shorthand for a crassly individualist worldview: that prized selfishness, greed and the trashing of social obligations.

So when Boris Johnson used a recent video, thanking the nation for its efforts against the coronavirus, to insist that, “There really is such a thing as society”, he was widely seen as torching the Thatcherite legacy. Yet the meaning of Thatcher’s words has long been contested. She herself, in one of her first major speeches as leader, had promised “to build a flourishing society – not an economic system”, and she cast herself as a champion of “the free society”. Like most of us, Thatcher did not always use words with precision. So it is worth revisiting what she actually said, and the relationship between Thatcherism and “society”.

The fateful words came in an interview with weekly magazine Woman’s Own, which centred on the moral and social condition of Britain. Too many people, Thatcher complained, had been brought up to think: “I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!” As a result, she said: “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.” 

She returned to the charge later in the interview, mocking the insistence that “it is society that is at fault”: “There is no such thing as society. There is a 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 … to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

As these quotes suggest, Thatcher was not suggesting that we have no responsibilities to other people. Nor was she denying the importance of social bonds. On the contrary, she insisted that “life is a reciprocal business”, in which each of us had a responsibility “to look ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour”. That “living tapestry of men and women” required us to “help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate”. What we could not do, however, was to blame “society” for our own decisions, or to demand that “society” take action instead of doing so ourselves.

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Whatever the merits of that argument, this was not the arid individualism of Ayn Rand – a thinker with whom Thatcher had very little in common. Throughout the interview, Thatcher stressed people’s obligations to their families, their neighbours and their communities. But the article did make three more contentious claims.

First, Thatcher claimed that a culture of big government was actively weakening the social bond, by encouraging people to palm off their caring obligations to the state. In a major speech in 1978, she had warned of “grave moral dangers” if people believed they could “delegate” their social responsibilities. A philosophy that surrendered those obligations to the state, or that viewed with contempt the “cold charity” of individuals, risked shutting down “one of the essential ingredients of humanity”. The result, Thatcher warned, would be to “dry up … the milk of human kindness”.

Second, she insisted that “people look to themselves first”: that the instinct to help others came from the more fundamental desire to look after our own. People would never work hard for society, but they would strive to give their parents and children a better life. Thatcher told the interviewer how she had visited a housing project for the elderly, and had chatted to one of the residents:

“She said: ‘Look! I have got fitted carpets throughout my small flat!’ She said: ‘My son is doing very well. He treated me to them!’ Another said: ‘My son is doing very well. He paid for me to go overseas! Aren’t I lucky,’ they said ‘to have such good families!’”

Third, Thatcher argued that appeals to “society” had become an excuse for sloughing off our social obligations. Too many people, she believed, said “society must do something”, when they meant “someone else should do something”. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of Hell, “society” had come to mean “other people”. 

Here, as so often, Thatcher reached for her favourite Bible story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Encountering a man who had been beaten up by thieves, the Samaritan had not written a strongly worded letter to the newspapers or phoned the social services. He had spent his own money to buy shelter and medicine. In Thatcher’s account, the parable became a case study in the positive case for wealth creation. “Even the Good Samaritan,” she noted tartly, “had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side.”

All three claims were contestable. Thatcher tended to see only one side of any question, and had little conception either of the social damage that could be wrought by acquisitiveness or of the implications for human dignity of relying on charity given on someone else’s terms. Charitable giving did not surge with the economic boom of the late 1980s, a fact that puzzled and perturbed her. She was never well attuned to structural disadvantage; the tale she told of her own success turned almost entirely on her hard work and personal characteristics, rather than on the social advantages of a wealthy husband and a good education. But she was making an argument about the character of the social bond, not denying its existence.

Thatcher’s office put this more clearly, in a doomed attempt to clarify her views. “Society”, it explained, was not “an abstract concept”. It was “made up of people”, and it was “the acts of individuals and families” that formed “the real sinews of society”. So, for that matter, did David Cameron in 2005, when he told the Conservative Party that “there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state”. Cameron’s “Big Society”, like Johnson’s later remarks, was presented as a breach with Thatcherism. Yet its emphasis on voluntary organisations, community action and neighbourliness sat comfortably with Thatcher’s own vision.

Whether Johnson is aware of all this seems doubtful. Unlike Thatcher, he has never shown much interest in philosophical debates about society or its relationship with the individual. Ironically, the very things he has praised in the current crisis – the mobilisation of an army of volunteers, the call to look out for one’s neighbours and the emphasis on personal responsibility for the good of the community – would have fitted comfortably in Thatcher’s vision, too.

Yet mood music matters, as Johnson has always understood. Repudiating Thatcher’s words allows Johnson to distance himself from the harsher associations of her legacy, without rejecting any specific policies. If Johnson has truly broken with Thatcherism, it is not in his vision of society but in the dramatic expansion of public spending to which his government is now committed. Where that leads, and how it is to be financed, will prove a more compelling test of his post-Thatcherite credentials.

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