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No such thing as society

The words “there is no such thing a society” do not, as some claim, refer to a kind of selfish individualism in which fellow citizens and the collective good are ignored

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Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 17 April 2013 16:08

The death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has predictably renewed interest in her legacy and world view. No British political leader in recent history has sharply divided opinion quite like the Iron Lady. Her mass privatisation of sectors of the economy, closing down of failing, and previously state-subsidised, industries, and weakening of militant trade union leaders not only transformed this country but placed Thatcher herself at the centre of great controversy.

Critics of Thatcher, in my experience, tend not to want to get into much detail about why they despise her so much. It is almost as if they want to avoid the policy detail, and the necessity of the changes she instigated, and instead focus on how nasty and callous she was. After all, a working class girl from the Midlands who seeks to empower working people by encouraging capitalism, and shifting a significant share of the Labour vote towards the Tories in the process, was never going to be forgiven by her political foes.

But nothing exemplifies the antipathy towards Thatcher quite like the often misquoted line: “there is no such thing as society”. This line deserves some contextualisation and discussion.

The full context of Thatcher's remark was as follows:

I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it: 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.

There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

That is a scathing criticism of a culture of entitlement and reliance on the Big State that was created in Britain during the years of the post-war consensus. During this time consecutive Labour governments, with the approval of the wets, expanded the state to such an extent that we were beginning to resemble Cuba, but without the sunshine.

By the late 1970s, socialist policies had bought Britain to its knees. Social mobility was virtually non-existent, most people were expected to work in exactly the same industries their parents worked in and live in the same bland state-owned housing. The state was heavily subsidising loss-making industries, such as ship-building and coal-mining, and other nationalised companies, such as British Gas, British Telecom and British Rail, were under-performing.

Thatcher wanted people to view themselves as the masters of their own destiny, rather than subjects of an all-powerful state. She believed prosperity could only be achieved if the masses were economically emancipated and free to pursue the capitalist dream in a free market and competitive economy. This could not be achieved if the culture of entitlement, which encourages apathy and a poor work ethic, was not undermined as well. 

The key lines from Thatcher's quote are the last two. She states: “People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” Thatcher turned to Hayekian economics, but that needed an accompanying cultural revolution too, a revolution in which people see the state as a facilitator and not a provider of prosperity. Noticeably, Thatcher did not cut back on the welfare state either, but rather encouraged private enterprise in order to reduce reliance on the state.

And so the words “there is no such thing a society” do not, as some claim, refer to a kind of selfish individualism in which fellow citizens and the collective good are ignored. Rather it refers to the empowerment and emancipation of the individual who, in the absence of an over-powering and stifling state, can achieve his/her potential when there is a genuine meritocracy and a level playing field.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

Read more on: Ghaffar Hussain, Thatcherism, thatcher, and Margaret Thatcher
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