Society: what is it exactly?

Thanks to Stevie over at for nominating me for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.

The rules of the challenge are:

  1. Three quotes for three days.
  2. Three nominees each day (no repetition).
  3. Thank the person who nominated you.
  4. Inform the nominees.

For my 2nd contribution I am quoting Margaret Thatcher:

There is no such thing as society. Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 1979-90, in an interview for Woman’s Own, September 1987.

Margaret Thatcher

Often quoted, frequently misunderstood, this single remark is held up as an example of her government’s belief that the state had no role to play in the personal lives of individuals. I think we need to look at the context of the remark before condemning it outright. You can see a transcript of the complete interview here. The two relevant passages are reproduced below. (Yes, she actually said it twice, although the wording on the first occasion was slightly different.):

[people] 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 went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is 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.

To understand what she meant I think it is necessary to define what is intended when people use the word ‘society’. To many, certainly to me, that ‘living tapestry of … people … prepared to turn round and help … those who are unfortunate’, is a description of what I would define as ‘society’. So, in effect, she is contradicting her own statement with the sentence that follows it.

What she seems to be saying is that people use the word in a way that makes it interchangeable with Government, or at least, the generality of people with power. It is both a scapegoat for our ills and a comfort blanket to which we turn when in trouble. Children’s bad behaviour is deemed to be the result of society’s newly acquired tolerance for behaviours previously viewed as unacceptable. And it is certainly the case that, in 1987, British social mores were in the midst of a massive upheaval, experiencing changes that have continued to this day. My 2015 novel Transgression was predicated on those changes in so far as they related to attitudes to sexuality, gender and sexual morals.

But we have free will. We do not have to follow trends that we regard as harmful. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children proper respect for other human beings. If the ‘living tapestry’ in which they grow up contains idleness, violence, drunkenness, philandering, contempt for the property of others, children will quite likely become adults with the same ‘values’.

Equally, if they experience a sober commitment to work, an atmosphere of trust and faithfulness in their parents’ and neighbour’s marriages, abhorrence of violence and respect for others’ property and opinions, they are likely to adopt similar standards in adulthood.

Notice that each of those contrasting environments is a description of a form of society. Neither has anything to do with government, except, perhaps, that the second is more likely to gain the approval of those we choose to rule over us.

After 40 years of welfare provision and of education and healthcare provided free of charge at the point of use, people had grown to take such things for granted; to believe that, should they fall on hard times, it was the fault of ‘society’ – by which they meant the state – and the same ‘society’ should protect them. Margaret Thatcher was, I think, trying to point out that, in that context, ‘society’ is all of us. It is only because we pay taxes that those protections are available. We ought not to assume that, because we have paid for these things, we have a right to abuse them.

It’s a sentiment that echoes John F Kennedy’s ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. And yet the former US President’s words are admired whilst Mrs. Thatcher’s are condemned.


Around 1970 a couple of large projects being undertaken by the company I worked for came to an end and there was no immediate replacement. Several colleagues were made redundant. I was fortunate in being employed on a project that still had several months to run. But the overtime upon which I had come to rely ceased. In an effort to maintain our standard of living, I took a part-time job in a pub. I remember overhearing a conversation between a couple of men, one of whom worked for the local council. It went something like this:

Council workman: I’m on the sick

Other man: Oh dear, what’s the problem?

Council workman: I’m not really sick, I’m on the sick. We are entitled to 4 weeks sick leave every year so I make a point of taking it.

That attitude, which shocked me at the time, is what I think Mrs. Thatcher was deploring. The belief that, because you are ‘entitled’ to something should the need arise, there is nothing wrong with taking it, even though you have no such need.

I would go further and suggest that, if a boon like healthcare free at the point of use is made available to you through the selfless sacrifice of society’s tax-payers, you ought to take steps to lead a reasonably healthy life-style. Going out and getting bladdered at the weekend and expecting the long suffering staff of the local A&E to sort out whatever injuries you incur as a result is not fair. Nor is stuffing your children with fatty and/or sugary foods to the point where they become obese and contract diabetes.

During her period as PM I was a political opponent and I remain so. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe she was blamed for much that was beyond her control. It is undoubtedly the case that many traditional industries disappeared on her watch. But it is also the case that those industries were doomed anyway. A combination of poor management and militant trades unionism made it impossible for them to compete with developing countries. The irony of this being that, in many instances, it was technologies developed in Britain along with machinery and training provided by British companies, often with government assistance, that had created those competing overseas industries.

Government attempts to encourage foreign investment in Britain failed, in part because of that reputation for past mismanagement. Some did come, notably Japanese car makers who brought an entirely new approach to management and industrial relations.

You can blame the Thatcher government for failing to oversee an orderly transition, and for what seemed then, and still seems to be, indifference to the plight of the men and women whose livelihoods vanished with those old industries. What you can’t do is blame ‘society’, or pretend that there is no such thing. Indeed, to the extent that communities that suffered have made any kind of recovery – and sadly many have not – it is society – that ‘living tapestry of men and women’ in those communities – that has done it, sometimes helped, more often hindered, by government intervention.

I nominate:

Christoph Fischer

Catherine Vaughan

Roberta Pimentel

One thought on “Society: what is it exactly?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.