Margaret Thatcher: There's No Such Thing as Society

DECEMBER 28, 2004

Margaret Thatcher's quote There is no such thing as society has seen wide circulation. Often used to condemn Thatcher and the Conservative Government under her as uncaring and promoting atomistic individualism that left many behind and damaged the solidarity of British society. However it is worth considering the quote in full before a rush to judgement. It reads:

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.

Source: Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women's Own magazine, October 3 1987

In the full quote Thatcher is making a point that while still debatable is a far more reasonable one than the excerpted single sentence would suggest. Namely that an abstract concept of society is too often used as a convenient catch-all for problems. That this society is made up of each of us, our neighbours, our communities and we should look to these first before reaching out to the convenient prop of society. She is also drawing attention to what she sees as a growing imbalance between rights and responsibilities - a point that has received widespread support from diverse quarters in recent times (from politicians of all colours to Buddhist monks such as Thich Nhat Hahn).