There really is such a thing as society

In a 1987 interview in Women’s Own magazine, British Prime Minister and Conservative heavyweight Margaret Thatcher famously insisted that there was ‘no such thing’ as society, and that people should first and foremost help themselves and their neighbours, instead of relying on ‘society’ (the state) to help them instead. Problems that affected the population were not problems with ‘society’, you see, but instead deficiencies in the correct neighbourly attitude which should see your neighbour taking care of you as you would of them.

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.Margaret Thatcher

Obviously, society does actually exist (sorry Maggie), and modern human life is defined by this existence of both society and the state, which governs what we can and cannot do as well as the support we receive and the leaders we turn to. More metaphorical (and perhaps sympathetic) interpretations of Thatcher’s statement, however, are mildly more convincing, and assert that Thatcher is not merely trying to offload responsibility and compassion onto the citizenry: rather, Thatcher is claiming that state payments (namely welfare benefits) don’t come from the society but instead from fellow citizens. A person’s food stamps are not being paid for by the government but instead by that person’s neighbours. Child or disability benefit does not come from society but from the recipient’s affluent friends or family. We should not see welfare as coming from the state and society but instead from members of that society. Welfare comes from taxation – from the pockets of your fellow citizens – not from society itself.

This more metaphorical approach uncovers an attitude towards government spending that is, at least mostly, actually true. British welfare is paid for by British taxpayers (except where it isn’t) and welfare payments do come from the salaries and sales taxes paid for by fellow citizens. The divide seen in economic politics is not actually on whether or not the state itself pays for welfare (which it doesn’t), but rather on whether or not state taxation and welfare is inherently bad (which it isn’t).

Taxation, when applied proportionally (i.e. tax those who already have far too much money), is not the evil scourge on society that Margaret Thatcher would like you to believe. Even as little as a 1% hike in taxation on the super-rich can easily fund many potentially life-saving welfare programs, with barely any effect on those being taxed. The Thatcherite mantra that lower tax rates on the rich will stimulate job creation has been ridiculed by economists, and Thatcher’s own cuts to social welfare in her attempt to reign back the role of ‘society’ caused levels of inequality and poverty to skyrocket. This, somewhat ironically, then caused the British government’s welfare bill to remain roughly constant or even increase as more were driven into unemployment and destitution. Thatcher’s 1984 unemployment rate of 11.9% was the highest since the Great Depression and one that is still unbeaten to this day.

It is true to say that welfare does not come from the ‘state’ but instead from the mandatory generosity of other citizens. There are many parts of Thatcher’s philosophy I disagree with, not least the moral repugnance accompanying her generations of pain, destitution and poverty in the name of ‘the economy’, but the conclusion that generosity – especially that of the super-rich – becomes a bad thing as soon as it is mandatory is likely one of the most ridiculous. How can redistribution and feeding the poor only be considered ‘good’ when it is voluntary? Extrapolation of such a worldview seems to suggest that doctors cannot do good within their jobs, as they are bound to try and save lives, and the same applies to social workers, teachers, nurses, and support networks. It begs the question: if taxation is bad when the government tries to use it to save lives, why do Thatcherites tend to so rigidly support the armed forces? Is that not also the nationalisation of jobs which we, the people, must pay for? The armed forces provide no more physical security to the rough sleeper than a roof over their heads would.

Rishi Sunak attending a coronavirus press conference, April 2020.
Rishi Sunak, Chancellor, in April 2020. Image source: Downing Street

In decline, stronger than ever

The Conservative Party is still defined in significant part by the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, whether they like it or not. David Cameron’s administration was often defined as Thatcherite, even if Cameron himself attempted to somewhat distance himself from Thatcher’s remarks on the existence (or non-existence) of society’s generosity. 33 years after Thatcher’s remarks on society, as the coronavirus pandemic tore through the British population and the world at large, the Conservative British Prime Minister broke again with the Thatcherism that had long hung over his party, saying (or admitting) that “there really is such a thing as society”.

But neither the Conservative Party nor its leaders have broken with the core tenets of Thatcherism, even if they have distanced themselves from one of its most infamous and supposedly most selfish slogans. David Cameron’s government, in contrast to Thatcher herself, explicitly separated ‘society’ from ‘the state’, but furthered Margaret Thatcher’s goals of gutting the nation’s welfare programs and reigning back public spending, the result of which caused a predictable rise in poverty and inequality just as it had under Thatcher’s own governance. Successive administrations, including that of the current incumbent Boris Johnson, have continued to preside over historic cuts to social security and a collapsing new Universal Credit system, which in July was found to be failing millions of low-income Britons.

This contradiction between policy well in line with Thatcher’s legacy and public statements attempting to distance themselves from that legacy comes at an interesting time for the United Kingdom: with more and more people having to reach out to the government for aid, the Thatcherite ideals of limited state welfare may be moving towards historical unpopularity. At the same time, there has never been a point in which Thatcher’s dream of community aid has been more universally realised. The recent dismissal of footballer Marcus Rashford’s plea to feed impoverished children outside of school, for example, has resulted in an explosion of private sector and community support driven largely by the anger of the population, with denunciations from as far a range as Jeremy Corbyn to Nigel Farage. The government-funded furlough scheme of Thatcher’s nightmare was similarly ended far too quickly, far before similar schemes were ended in European countries.

A Conservative government reluctant to break with Margaret Thatcher’s small-state dreams have forced the British public into a desperation and fury that, by pure chance alone, closely resembles Margeret Thatcher’s dream of a neighbourly ‘society’. This change does not appear to have been out of choice. Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well insist that he has split his party from ruinous Thatcherism, but his government’s plan to get away with as little spending as possible does not reflect it. Sorry, Mrs. Thatcher: pandemic austerity is not the way to go. Hollow words are no substitute for food.

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