Margaret Thatcher has died. It's not a very noble thing to rejoice in the death of another, and, of course, nothing is achieved by her dying. Her end as an active figure in public life came with her ousting in November 1990. She anointed various hopeless successors as Tory leader (John Major, William Hague, and Iain Duncan Smith were all the hapless recipients of her benediction) and their failures as leader underlined her poor judgment and disconnect with the electorate, the very reasons she was booted out of No. 10 by her own Cabinet. It was clear throughout the 2000s that her health had declined so much as to render her incapable of contributing to public life. But of course she didn't need to be personally active. The principles she enacted and came to embody are still with us. Thatcher lives.
I've been thinking about her death for an unhealthily long time. The soundtrack to my university years were songs like 'Margaret on the Guillotine' by Morrissey (February 1988) and 'Tramp the Dirt Down' by Elvis Costello (March 1989). One of my favourite political indie songs is Hefner's 'The Day That Thatcher Dies' (October 2000). I have a pact with my friend Alison that we are going to dance on her grave; I think that pact goes back almost 25 years, though we have since amended the pact to allow that dancing very near her grave is an acceptable substitute. I may have a dance on 17 April, the day of her funeral. I suspect I will not be alone.
I'm not, in general, a particular hateful person. I'm rather easygoing and I find it easy to sympathise with people who make bad decisions. So why do I - did I - hate her so much? I certainly don't think it's a noble thing or morally defensible to celebrate her death. But I don't think we are really celebrating her death. The celebration, such as it is, is a shout of defiance against the fact that Thatcherism has become the political air we breathe. Free market economics, deregulated financial markets have manifestly failed, as has its own brand of rescue remedy, Austerity Economics. But still it seems impossible for any major politician to offer anything alternative. Keynesianism must never be named. Instead, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband talk coyly of 'investment for growth'. So we say what shouldn't be said in lieu of saying what cannot be said.
But that's to turn hatred into a romantic gesture. Actually, I do think Thatcher had a hateful influence on the whole of British society, and inasmuch as she was globally influential, on us all. Let me say why.
One expects a bit of exaggeration when listing the virtues of the recently-deceased, though surely David Cameron's assertion that she 'saved our country' stretches the permissible limits of politesse. Elsewhere, I was startled to hear on Radio 4 the abysmal Gillian Shepherd refusing to accept that Margaret Thatcher ever said 'there's no such thing as society'.
Yes she did. It was an interview with Woman's Own, published in 31 October 1987. In it she is quoted as saying:
There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
Now, in fact, this is a composite quote, drawn from two slightly different sections of the interview, the fuller version of which has been transcribed on Thatcher's own website. This is the fuller context:
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 later she says:
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.
The context makes clear that her point was less apocalyptic and more ethically subtle than is generally acknowledged, but I don't think the central claim is qualified out of existence. On some level, Thatcher really think that society lacks substance or foundation. She really did say and she really did mean 'There's no such thing as society'. And in this short quotation I think we can find the root of everything that has gnawed away at our spirit, hollowed out our society, corrupted our better selves, made us definitively worse. I want to say why, because perhaps then I can let her go.
‘There’s no such thing as society’. This quotation is regularly trotted out as an example of Thatcher’s callous disregard for the common good. As even Samuel Brittan, the economist and Thatcher cheerleader, concedes they ‘seemed to be the epitome of an uncaring pursuit of personal self-interest’ (Capitalism with a Human Face, Aldershot: Elgar, 1995, p. 87).
What might the quotation mean? Let’s take the second half of the sentence (as published) separately. To claim that there’s no such thing as society might be an epistemological point; while there are palpably individuals and even groups, ‘society’ seems to involve a mental concept which is not directly sensible in the world. We cannot point to society in the way we can point to an individual. This is true, surely, and we might read her to be making a distinction between kinds of statement about the world.
In this sense, Thatcher may be making a Humean point. Just as Hume argued that cause and effect was not part of the observable world (regardless of how microscopically we examine things, we only see one event happening after another, not causality as such ). (Samuel Brittan unflatteringly glosses the line as Thatcher reminding us that ‘society consists of individuals, just as herds and flocks consist of individual cows and sheep’ ibid.). It might be that Thatcher was being Humean in suggesting that individuals are empirical objects but a society is not and that we should therefore be sceptical about the existence of the latter.
While Thatcher was probably not thinking about epistemology when she spoke, there is an important intellectual genealogy that links her. Hume was great friends with Adam Smith, the founder of market economics; indeed, it is to some extent a quirk of history that Hume is thought of as the philosopher and Adam Smith the economist, since Hume wrote important works of political economy and Adam Smith constructed a moral philosophy. In a rather Thatcherite style, in his essay ‘Of National Characters’, Hume wrote ‘A nation is nothing but a collection of individuals’ (Selected Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 114). From Hume’s moral theory there is a line of succession to Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarian moral philosophy, which informs conservative social theory, while Adam Smith informs their economic liberalism. It was precisely this liberalism which fell out of favour in the early twentieth century, such that Hayek in 1944 had to call for its revival. The collapse of the Keynesian consensus and the Bretton Woods arrangements to whose design Keynes had so crucially contributed paved the way for the revival of nineteenth century liberalism in a new form, now stripped of its Humean notion of moral sentiments, in the radicalised doctrine of neoliberalism.
The idea that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, is consonant with Adam Smith’s famous invocation of the invisible hand. The market’s mechanism is to work simply by the separate actions of consumers; conferral, government intervention, windy talk of moral values, will simply gum up its mechanisms, chaotically causing problems as the market tries to shake off this threat. It would be better to stop thinking about society at all; there is no doubt a common good, but it is far more efficiently served by the sleek responsiveness of market mechanisms than by the cumbersome, idealistic and moralising posturing of government.
Hume's moral philosophy rests on the idea that we have a series of natural moral instincts; they are not rational principles or prudential calculations, merely a set of impulses to be nice to each other. I exaggerate but I don't think significantly for the argument. Hume's is a moral philosophy that prepares the way for the triumph of the market. The market will respond to what people’s actual views are and it is better not to claim to know. Let the market decide, and leave morality to individual consumers. If we all have altruistic impulses, the market will reveal that. Hume thought we did, but his philosophy doesn't seem to require that; it would be fairly consistent for Hume to discover that we actually have a different set of moral sentiments than he imagined and be quite relaxed about it. Better that than insisting on what constitutes an appropriate set of moral sentiments. If you think you know what morality is, the danger is that you will start acting as a break on the possible development of actual moral positions in the light of new circumstances, arrangement, products. Hume’s ethical egoism is preserved—so that bit of human nature is fixed, it seems—but his idea that we have a moral sentiment of altruism or justice is quietly dropped. We may have moral sentiments, but the market will find out how strong they are.
That’s the idea, anyway.
However, this leaves us with a problem. For the very same scepticism that remarks on the ontological dubiousness of ‘society’ also applies to the family. We might well say, there’s no such thing as the family, only individuals. Yet Thatcher firmly believed in it; Victorian Values was as much about personal sexual morality as it was about economic self-help and self-reliance. Of course, the bonds between parents and children are very strong, but to assert them as separate from market mechanisms is inconsistent with the disdain for society-thinking. If she actually believed that the market would protect familial bonds perfectly, then there would have been no need to single it out. One need say ‘there’s no such thing as society, only individuals’ safe in the knowledge that this will protect the family.
The market does of course interfere with this bond; market-led education, food and health; in the C19 children up chimneys; but also killing girls in China; paedophile tourism; in Thailand, following the Asian crisis, children were withdrawn from schools to be put to work and this has happened here too. Thatcher’s squeamishness about exposing the bond between children and parents to the judgment of the market is commendable. But isn’t it also applicable to society? Aren’t there excellent things about society, many noble moral sentiments, common goods, things of value to preserve and protect, that the market threatens?
And if they say that these things can’t be so valuable to people if they vote against it with their wallets and purses, well we should accept that if these same wallets and purses should be permitted to vote for children in prostitution and pornography, sweatshops, chimneys and slavery. Because there's no such thing as families, only individuals. And individuals might want to make use of children for these things.
The wider context of the glaring headline 'There's no such thing as society' is the perfectly reasonable remark that we have no rights without corresponding obligations from others. And what Thatcher is cunningly doing is moving from observing that 'society' is not an empirical object to suggesting, quite illegitimately, that there's no such thing as government. Because government can supply such things as grants and homes and other solutions to the problems that may reasonably afflict the best of people.
The point here being that there is a faultline in Thatcher’s remark between a view that sees the market as responding to and revealing the real ethical commitments of a society—the market fundamentalist position—and one that sees the good as diverging from the market, with an independent value and which requires marking out for special protection, if necessary against the market.
This is the root of everything foul and degraded that Thatcher's government did and our current government is doing. And let me say, what Cameron, Clegg and Osborne are doing is worse, many times worse, but because they are so sunk in Thatcherism that they never rise to the surface to breathe clean air. Withdrawing disability benefits, capping benefits, cutting the arts, privatising the NHS, schools and university teaching, all the other nasty, vicious, callous things the Coalition are doing, they are doing out of ideological conviction that 'society' does not exist - or, if it does, it will be revealed by unleashing the full power of the market. You can't argue with them; there simply are no principles prior to the market, so the market is unstoppable. Like morality, like families, like the health of children, society will be only preserved if the market - which is supposedly the embodiment of our collective will - thinks they are important. This is why there's no such thing as society.
The post-war consensus survived for 34 years from November 1942, when the Beveridge Report was published, to November 1976, when the Labour Government applied to the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans. Thatcherite principles were installed in government in May 1979 and we are now 34 years on from that watershed. That's why I want to tramp the dirt down. It's time to bury Thatcherism as we bury Thatcher. Thatcherism unleashed the worst, the very worst of us.