Thatcher's ungenerous critics undermine society

In the wake of Mrs. Thatcher’s death, there has been much discussion about her economic record and her political achievements. However, one of the more annoying points that people try to score against Mrs. Thatcher relates to her famous ‘there is no such thing as society’ quote. Perhaps it is fair enough for other politicians to use this quotation to try to score political points. It may be cheap, and it may retard rather than advance political debate, but the cut and thrust of political discourse is not always entirely fair. However, the statement is frequently used against her by religious clergy, intellectual journalists and academics in a way which is deeply unfair and uncharitable and which reflects badly on Mrs. Thatcher’s critics.

Let’s go back to the first part of the quotation (from Woman’s Own). She said: ‘[People say] “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…’
The context of this is very clear. As Lord Lamont once put it to me, Mrs. Thatcher is arguing that ‘society’ cannot pay for this or that without the sacrifice of individuals in society any more than a flock of sheep can provide mutton without specific sheep being slaughtered. If a vegetarian were to say: ‘it’s okay for a vegetarian to eat mutton, sheep don’t have to suffer, the flock can provide me with it’, then I might respond ‘there is no such thing! There are individual sheep that have to be slaughtered’. Mrs. Thatcher was making the same point to people who do not understand the concept of opportunity cost of government action to help the poor as I would be making to the vegetarian who wanted mutton without sheep being slaughtered.
It is worth noting that there is certainly nothing uncompassionate about Mrs. Thatcher’s statement here – quite the reverse. She is pinpointing the suffering of people who have to pay taxes rather than pretending that taxes do not have to be paid. Others may argue that ‘society’ is more than the sum of its parts or that it is important to have political discourse around the concept of a collective, but these are points mainly to be debated by students of high political theory and it is very difficult to understand how anybody behaving charitably and with honesty could criticise Mrs. Thatcher’s underlying disposition in her ‘no such thing as society’ quotation.
In fact, the picture becomes even clearer as Mrs. Thatcher’s statement goes on. She then said: 
‘It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business...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 [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 each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’
Any generous reader would think this a contradiction or a slip of the tongue and certainly never use the quotation to pillory her. She begins by defining as duties self-interest, reciprocity and charity. She then says ‘there is no such thing as society’ but, oddly, follows by, in essence, defining society. It has to be said that this is all pretty clumsy but the description is also one reasonable Methodist interpretation of society. And then, in a clarification released to the Sunday Times, it was said: ‘She prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept.’
Indeed, the ‘no such thing as society’ clause makes absolutely no sense if understood in any way other than that suggested in the Sunday Times’ clarification and in Lord Lamont’s ‘flock and the mutton’ example. Mrs. Thatcher’s statement, taken as a whole, is very compassionate in the literal sense. Compassion means ‘to suffer with’. It does not mean to ‘vote for a political party that will tax your next door neighbour to help the person down the road’ – it means providing help yourself to those in need and not leaving it to ‘society’. The statement could also be understood in the way suggested by David Cameron when he said something along the lines of ‘there is such a thing as society, it is just not the same thing as the state’ – which, as it happens, is also the understanding of society in Catholic social teaching. However, it should be said that, in Catholic social teaching, there is also great stress put on the institutions that evolve within society, but Mrs. Thatcher would be well aware of those too and would have admired them. The fact that they have often had their functions taken over by the state has been criticised in Catholic social teaching and would have been a matter of great regret for Mrs. Thatcher.
At a theoretical level, Mrs. Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ statement could be debated with or without the context and the Sunday Times clarification. However, anybody using the statement against her to try to suggest that she did not believe in government spending, charity, compassion, community action, and so on, is interpreting her statement in an ungenerous and uncharitable way (clumsy though the statement was). Any member of the Christian clergy or any intellectual journalist or academic who does so knowingly should ask themselves serious questions about their own understanding of society as there can be no true society if we deliberately misunderstand the motives of our neighbours.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Times.

Thank you for publishing this article. I have long understood what Margaret Thatcher meant by this statement but have always thought that it was clumsily worded (it reads like she was trying to remember something she once read and is trying to articulate it for a magazine interview). I might be wrong if I say that this is the first instance of the phrase but I first encountered it when reading Ayn Rand (a philosopher that Mrs Thatcher also read) and I do believe that this is where Margaret Thatcher got the idea from. I must say that this is the first time that I have heard Lord Lamont's explanation and it is very good. Thank you.

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