Is there still such thing as British society?

Nobody has forgotten the interview of Margaret Thatcher published in Women’s Own on 31st October 1987 while she was Prime Minister. I cannot help but copy down the most well-known extract here:

“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.”

Even now, I still wonder about the true meaning of this both fascinating and frightening sentence, “There is no such thing as society.” And even if Margaret Thatcher knew herself at that time what she wanted to say exactly, I still think that she was a bit surprised to have found such an expressive formula. Anyway, let’s try to elucidate this mysterious statement: to my mind, it is both an anthropological axiom and a political program.

Of course, society exits in the sense that, in a given territory (e.g. the UK), a community of people sharing the same laws, customs and values cooperates to produce a certain level of wealth. But society does not exist as an abstract network of solidarity between its members, because such solidarity does not belong to human nature. It is indeed one of the basic principles of liberal anthropology: individual behaviour of agents is above all motivated by an acute consciousness of their private interest. For example, a farmer who cultivates the soil does it to sell his harvest, not to feed the population of his country. This also means that an individual has no natural predisposition to help or support other people, except his family and maybe his neighbours or his close friends.

The immediate political consequence of this human being’s representation is obvious: the welfare state goes against nature, because it is founded precisely on such an idea of mutual assistance between individuals within the society, for the sake of public good – an illusion, for liberal thinkers. Consequently, a responsible conservative government (e.g. Thatcher’s one) has to break the welfare state in order to restore the truth of human nature – the truth of rational self-interest.

Be careful! To break the welfare state does not mean to break the state. On the contrary: a conservative government needs a strong state to apply its policies. It would be completely wrong to say that the “neoliberal revolution” led by Thatcher in the 80s has weakened the state’s power. Its aims and its running have simply been entirely transformed. Firstly, the welfare state has been abolished for a super-regulatory state, whose function is to set up the “all free-market” system and to make it work to conform to the model. Secondly, the principles of the new public management have been implemented to reform the administration; in other words, the public sector has been reshaped on the pattern of the private sector.

Beyond the welfare state, the real target of Thatcher’s policies was society as a community of interests, a structure of collective solidarities. It is why, to some extent, Thatcherism can be seen as a project of destroying British society – which it did in fact by different methods: it destroyed solidarity between generations by switching the contributory pension scheme to a self-funded retirement scheme; it destroyed solidarity between the social classes by reducing income tax; it destroyed solidarity within the working class by anti-union policies, etc. The result? A free market, a strong state – and millions of atomised individuals, each struggling for his own existence.

Unfortunately, New Labour did not really repair the damage, and it is not very surprising: “We are all Thatcherites now,” wrote Peter Mandelson in The Times on 10th June 2002, confessing thus that the Third Way was just a variant of neoliberalism, not a true social-democrat program. Blair and Brown have conscientiously pursued the policy to transform the state and liberalise the economy, defending half-heartedly what remains of the welfare system – until the final catastrophe: the current crisis and its disastrous effects on people.

Today, even Tories admit that something is wrong and things have gone too far. David Cameron himself, in his speech on 26th April 2009, talked about a “broken society,” and said – almost a mea culpa for the Conservative Party: “We have strengthened our liberalism and rediscovered our Conservatism, building a movement that isn’t just about the individual, but about the community; not just about the ‘me’, but the ‘we’; not just about the market, but about society too.” It is not very kind to Thatcher…

In times of serious trouble like now, a country needs a strong, united society to face up to overwhelming difficulties of all kinds; otherwise, it implodes and collapses, or turns to extremism. But is there still such thing as British society? Only the next years will tell us if Margaret Thatcher has succeeded in her grandiose project. Let’s hope not, of course.

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