Book review: No Such Thing As Society

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It is perhaps the most notorious quote made by Margaret Thatcher during her eleven years in Downing Street:

“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!”

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The immortal words appeared in an interview in Woman’s Own soon after her third and final election victory in 1987. Later in the interview, she emphasised her point:

“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.”

Thatcher and her supporters liked to claim that the “no such thing as society” quote had been misquoted or even deliberately misunderstood by her opponents in a bid to discredit her. In fact, even in context, it is clear what she meant and that she meant what she said. As John Campbell has pointed out elsewhere: “It was not meaningful for the head of a government charged with administering {society} to maintain that it did not exist.”

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And as Andy McSmith points out in this excellent book, Thatcher’s outlook largely explains why the Eighties were such an unsettling decade for so many people. As a woman “brought up in conditions of economic security and who had married into money,” Thatcher didn’t appreciate how difficult life for many people in her realm had become. She generally had no sense of humour and in the decade of Live Aid never showed any interest in alleviating world poverty whatsoever.

And what a decade it was. Despite having read extensively about the Thatcher era and the fact that I’ve only come to this book five years after it was first published, McSmith still presents a remarkable number of viewpoints on the decade which were entirely new to me.

For anyone interested in what was both acceptable and unacceptable in the Eighties, this is an absolutely essential read.

No Such Thing As Society: A History Of Britain in the 1980s by Andy McSmith

(Published: Constable, 2011)

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