In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

No Such Thing

One of the most misunderstood quotes in British politics is the late Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “there is no such thing as society”. It has been interpreted to mean a literal denial of the concept of a society. This interpretation may be observed in remarks by Polly Toynbee, part of the Guardian’s Ginyu Force, said on a Question Time panel held in Thatcher’s constituency of Finchley, that:

Labour’s respect and belief in the collective good and the need for civic values, to try and compare that with Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ is really unfair.

Margaret Thatcher's argument was that society is a by-word for "individual men and women" and "families".

Margaret Thatcher’s argument was that society is a by-word for “individual men and women” and “families”.

The Full Quote

Prime Minister Thatcher was interviewed by Women’s Own magazine in 1987, where she said:

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!” “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 and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate.

Under a welfare system, the need to balance benefits with contributions and obligations is often discussed, such as by Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne, who wanted Labour to “strengthen the old principle of contribution”.

Her quote is heavily vilified, but its meaning is congenial amongst social democrats and conservatives alike. The receipt of a benefit by one person places an obligation on another person to pay it, since the state has no resources of its own. ‘Society’ is a by-word for the collection of individuals and families, and there is no institution called ‘society’ that can be distilled from the people within it. David Cameron’s declaration that “there is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state” was not a repudiation of Thatcher’s argument, but a reformulation.

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