MENU
Your location:

The derivation of “There is no such thing as society”

    CPS Director Tim Knox writes on the origin of arguably Lady Thatcher's most famous, and most mischaracterised, quote. 

    Opinion pollsters know that they can never ask the question which they often most want to ask: “why do you say that?”

    Why? Because those five words can be interpreted in five subtly different ways, according to where the stress is put. For example, “WHY do you say that?” is asking for the reason for a statement. “Why do YOU say that?” infers that the questioner is more interested in the respondent’s motivation. Whichever word you emphasise changes the meaning of the question.

    The importance of where you emphasise a particular word in a sentence applies to one of Mrs Thatcher’s most often quoted remarks. Thirty years ago, my father Oliver Knox was working at the Centre for Policy Studies as Director of Publications along with David Willetts, then a young and brilliant Director of Studies. My father was correcting some proofs. He came across a sentence starting with the words “Society thinks…”. Irritated, he crossed the words out, exclaiming “There is no such THING as society. Society can’t THINK”.

    Later that week, David Willetts was at No 10 Downing Street at a seminar with Mrs Thatcher. One of the other participants happened to make the same opening remarks to a sentence “Society thinks...”David Willetts leapt in, repeating my father’s words of irritation. Mrs Thatcher whipped out a pen and scribbled them down. 

    A little later, Mrs Thatcher  famously repeated them in an interview with Women’s Own. A look at the full context of the quotation suggests that, if the original emphasis is observed, what might at first glance seem to be a cold-hearted denial of any sense of commonality is in fact merely a statement of simple common sense:

    “I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." – Women’s Own, 31 October 1987.

    WHY did Mrs Thatcher say that? Because she believed it was true. Why did she say THAT? Because it illuminated her conviction that it is only those individuals who take responsibility for their own lives who can be truly free.

    Tim Knox was Director of the CPS from 2011-2017. Before he was Director, Tim was the Editor at the CPS - a position in which he was responsible for publishing papers by every Conservative leader since Mrs Thatcher as well as by hundreds of leading academics and opinion formers.

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    Comments

    Kieron O'Hara - About 2258 days ago

    This is a nice story. The critique of society as an actor had been in the air for a while, of course. I was very struck with Angus Maude's book The Common Problem (1969). On p.41, he writes:

    "The bewildered individual, seeking lost authority, certainty and standards, is reduced to social conformism. It is a kind of 'back to the womb' movement, or at the least a demand not to grow out of the childhood state of security without responsibility. And 'society' is expected to provide the security. Here we have the demand for 'social security', which means that 'society' must increasingly take over the moral and financial responsibilities of individuals and families. But 'society', of course, cannot do this, for it does not exist. The material obligations are undertaken by its formal manifestation - the State - which thus comes to be identified and coterminous with 'society'. However, the State is felt to be a cold and formal abstraction, much too inhuman to suggest either a comfortable womb or a sympathetic fairy godmother. ... So the myth is developed that 'society' is responsible for everything, like an all-embracing super-family."

    I would suggest that Mrs Thatcher was familiar with these ideas, either through discussion with Maude or with the book itself. The idea Maude communicates here is very similar to the point she made in Woman's Own which has been so misinterpreted over the years.

    Maude (the father of Francis Maude of course) was involved in Mrs Thatcher's leadership bid, and served in her first cabinet. He wrote The Common Problem - a remarkably stimulating and erudite work - after being sacked from Ted Heath's Shadow Front Bench. He was not a great fan of Ted, and also highly critical of Macmillan.

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    Huseyin Djemil - About 2257 days ago

    To be or not to be
    That is the question

    Or

    To be
    Or not
    To be that is the question

    Another example of emphasis and a play on words which changes the meaning entirely

    Thank you Tim, another excellent piece with a personal twist

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    John Bullard - About 2256 days ago

    Tim;
    Wise words; indeed one can apply exactly the same thinking to a similar overused weasel word much beloved of the BBC et alia in todays environment- almost invariably linked to some justification for the State stepping in to spend taxpayers money...and to the abrogation of individual responsibility/accountability.
    The word is " Community".
    Take note of the context & frequency with which it seeps into announcements/interviews et alia....
    Kind rgds John

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    Joanna J Daly - About 2249 days ago

    As a follower of the Right, but not the far-Right, of whom I understand well enough, I feel you distract from the essential meaning of Lady Thatcher's words and belief. Thankyou for her quoted message.
    Unfortunately it is a very cold-hearted view. Understandable if she has never experienced or witnessed extreme pain and distress, loss of human dignity, starvation, filth and fear. It is easy to avoid the poor if you are a leader.
    I am disappointed by this article, which does not explain sufficiently, and her funeral has shown how dignified British society can be in allowing different viewpoints, the point that 'there is no such thing as society'.
    I found the real explanation of the exact words by accident one day last year on the Oxford Reference website - it is a belief of 'The Chicago School'. We do not need a Degree to understand it.
    Therefore, could you explain further?

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    Anonymous - About 2239 days ago

    I recommend examining NNU.edu Wesley Center, Sermon 50 - The Use Of Money. I believe she was a Methodist.

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.


    Anonymous - About 601 days ago

    Just a small point- it was @Woman's Own', not 'Women's Own' magazine,
    regards,
    D.Matthews

    Comment on This

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.