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.