Is There Such a Thing as Society?

The infamous “no such thing as society” interview given by Prime Minister Margret Thatcher to Women’s Own magazine, October 31, 1987:

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 […]

It would be ignorant to say that there is no such thing as society. Society is the purposeful actions of all the individuals who participate in it. As such it is simply the sum of all its parts. Delve a little bit deeper and you will see that is in fact the most liberating and fulfilling invention of mankind discovered by the use of reason. The ability for man to cooperate and pursue his ends is society. Working within the societal structure of mutual co-operation to facilitate exchange of goods and services, you get the additional benefits of friendship and a sense of belonging or togetherness. This is often hailed as one of the greatest benefits of living and cooperating together.

The principle of the division of labour that allows us to avoid providing individually for all our goods and services, shelter and warmth, with the necessary impoverishment this would mean for the majority (and probably death), make us what we are as human beings. We are lifted out of the survival of the fittest war of all against all.

The Darwinian nightmare is not writ large in the human species as it seems to be for most other life forms.

Mrs Thatcher was taken out of context, as can be seen when you read the full text of the talk. However I suspect she, or her speech writers, displayed little understanding of the true benefits of the discovery of mutual human co-operation. I think they were also of the school of thought that would quite rightly argue for less government, as is Cameron, one of her successors. However she did not have much of an idea of what to put in its place. The transition from a government-run, welfare-providing, rule-making, centralised decision-making society to individual responsibility, local-community-led society is quite a painful process. To be smoothly transitioned to a society more compatible with liberty, I fear warrants only a constructivist approach to getting top-down government out of our lives and to rebalancing responsibility away from government and to the individual and the family. Cameron is spot on the money with regard to this.

Consider these extracts from “The Big Society” speech by David Cameron our aspiring PM.

I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.


The size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effect on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.

This is an extremely important point. Absent personal responsibility and the mutual bonds that bind us together through the universal division of labour fall away. The selfish, those who do not take individual responsibility, the person who says he has a “right” to a job, a house, an income etc, these people believe others must provide for them. This is selfishness in its extreme, if they are fit and ready to work. We all suspect that with 2.7 million people on Incapacity Benefit, there is extreme selfishness and little societal / individual responsibility at play. In war, enemies have tried their best to bomb the hell out of us and incapacitate as many of us as possible, but I suspect in 1945 there were not 2.7m people incapacitated in the UK!

[T]he re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives. It must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom. This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.

If this means encouraging tax breaks of social entrepreneurship or social action schemes then bring it on, as this will truly bring benefit to society and strengthen the bonds of individual responsibility. If this means some arbitrary intervention to make one class of person better off at the expense of another, his project will be doomed to fail. It all seems to be positively pointing to the former.

So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.

Cameron’s main contention is that the closing of the income gap between the highest and the lowest sectors of society provides a better society.

So the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful. However, even in this period, it’s important to look at the complete picture. Some state extensions helped tackle poverty, others were less effective. Some did so while encouraging responsibility and local pride at the same time others undermined these virtues.

Since 1997,

the state continued to expand under Labour, our society became more, not less unfair.

He goes on to say

In the past decade, the gap between the richest and the poorest got wider. Indeed, inequality is now at a record high. The very poorest in our society got poorer – and there are more of them. The incomes of the bottom ten percent actually fell by £6 per week between 2002 and 2008 before housing costs, and £9 per week after housing costs. The number of people living in severe poverty has actually risen – not fallen, risen – by 900,000 in the past ten years.

I have to say, I hope this part of the speech is political posturing as who cares how rich the rich get as long as the bottom section is rising, everyone is indeed benefiting.

Cameron then poses a good question that we would all love to know the answer to:

How is it possible for the state to spend so much money, to devote so much energy, to fighting poverty – only for poverty and inequality to win the fight?

Part of the answer is as follows:

We have surely learnt that it is not enough merely to keep funding more and more generous tax credits. Indeed, the harm that means-tested benefits do to work incentives is beginning to undo the good they do in raising people’s incomes.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies observed of the Government’s approach:
“Its current strategy of increasing … [means-tested] child tax credit is effective at reducing poverty directly, but its indirect effect might be to increase poverty through weakening incentives for parents to work.”

Payment under Cameron will not be by right, but by performance. Hallelujah!

Responsibility of the individual will be placed at the centre of a Cameron agenda:

as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

Cameron recognises the value of education: those with better educations will do better in a globalised world. So there is self governing status for schools and much more parental involvement:

when you are paid more not to work than to work, when you are better off leaving your children than nurturing them, when our welfare system tells young girls that having children before finding the security of work and a loving relationship means a home and cash now, whereas doing the opposite means a long wait for a home and less cash later; when social care penalises those who have worked hard and saved hard by forcing them to sell their home, rather than rewarding them by giving them some dignity in old age; when your attempts at playing a role in society are met with inspection, investigation, and interrogation, is it any wonder our society is broken?

And here lies the rub.

The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them. What is seen in principle as an act of social solidarity, has in practice led to the greatest atomisation of our society. The once natural bonds that existed between people – of duty and responsibility – have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state – regulation and bureaucracy.

Our alternative to big government is the big society.

But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.

The policy prescriptions are a wealth of initiatives, backed by strong legislation to devolve the current powers of the state to the smallest local unit: neighbourhood empowerment:

Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.

This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.


Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems.

We must use the state to remake society.

We must use the state to help stimulate social action.

If Cameron can achieve all of this he will be advancing the tradition of the Great Manchester social reforming Liberals such as Cobden & Bright. He will also be working in the tradition of Gladstone. One of those Great Manchester Liberals, Richard Cobden said:

Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.

After reading this speech by Cameron and appreciating his deeper understanding of society than Margaret Thatcher, I realise that, like Cobden, he will be a great social reformer: he deserves our support and encouragement in this project.

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