Monday, 11 March 2013

There's No Such Thing As Society

On 31st October 1987, something very significant happened to British politics. In an interview with Women's Own magazine, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said:

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.

Since then, the phrase "there is no such thing as society" has become a bit of a stick to beat "evil Tories" with. In context, you can see it's just the usual mantra of the right - we shouldn't have a culture of looking to the state for everything; as individuals, we're responsible for our own actions; we need to meet our own obligations, etc.

However, there's more to the picture of how "society" works than just individual responsibility. Individual responsibility underpins society, but when things go wrong, society supports individuals. As long as enough people still want to do "good things" (like paying their taxes, obeying the law and being nice to each other) and as long as governments work to maintain the structure to help people do this (by spending taxes wisely, making sure people are treated equally and helping people out when they're in trouble), it broadly works. It's like the legal system - some people will always be bad and some people will always get treated unfairly but we all need to buy into it and keep fixing it when it breaks.

The big problem with politics is Ideology. Put simply, this is when someone has believed something for long enough that it's more important for it to be true than for it to be right.

Right-leaning governments (and I'm including Blair's "New Labour" in this) have ideologies such as The Importance Of A Free Market Economy; Anyone Should Be Able To Get Rich; You Shouldn't Expect Something For Nothing. Left-leaning governments believe in things like Supporting Minorities, Helping The Disabled and Building Equality.

Something happens when a person enters politics. The normal internal balance that people have which allow them to do things like make money but still give some of it to charity suddenly tilts to one side or another. They join a political party and everything becomes black or white. They haven't suddenly turned evil or stupid (although it looks like that sometimes). It's just that they feel they have to take a side.

This polarisation of opinion is why Conservatives are branded "evil" or Labour are called "shambolic". Liberal Democrats have a different problem - they're a mix of left- and right-leaners, and right now, being in a coalition with the Conservatives tips them over into "evil sympathisers".

Because the party political system in the UK encompasses both local representation (councils and MPs) and national representation (the prime minister and the cabinet), we have to buy in to one of these sides. So society is still comprised of individuals who maintain their own balance of responsibility and ambition, but represented by individuals who feel a need to do one while paying lip service to the other.

Going back to Thatcher's famous quote, the problem with ideologies is that if they are left unconstrained for long enough, they start to do real damage. She may not have meant that society didn't exist, but the ironic end result of the incessant focus of her (and subsequent) governments is that society has been gradually eroded and destroyed. The current government is using this focus on individual responsibility to divide us into Benefits Recipients and Hard-Working Families. Of course, the truth is that a huge number of people are actually both, but politics doesn't allow for that.

The Conservatives genuinely don't understand (or see a need to consider) individual needs right here, right now. They see themselves as responsible for The Country, which to them means taking a macroeconomic view. In other words, even though individual people driving vans and making widgets and cleaning toilets and running banks are all making and spending money, the government is looking at the Big Numbers. What's important to them is whether the country as a whole has debt or not; what the headline numbers are (GDP, employment statistics, interest rates). They don't care what these numbers are actually made up of - the real lives - just the numbers.

Conversely, past Labour governments have absolutely understood individual needs. They've helped create the Welfare state and support for minorities. They've encouraged people to respect one another. But by failing to see the bigger picture, they let strikes get out of hand; everyone wanted a bigger slice of the pie and we ended up with the Winter Of Discontent. Tony Blair understood this, but he was motivated more by a will to get Labour back into government than the desire to achieve balance. So we got years of Pretend Labour, while society was quietly being undermined.

We are in the worst period of financial insecurity, social breakdown and instability that most of us have experienced in our lives so far. Some of these things - especially the wider financial ones associated with being part of a global economy - are out of our individual control. But many of them aren't. We are still responsible for our own views. We are still responsible for "doing the right thing", no matter how hard it is to be nice to other people in need when we are worrying about our own problems.

We must remember that governments are blind and stupid and driven by ideology. When they do things that we instinctively know to be wrong, we need to shout, and shout loudly. And we need to keep shouting.

This is society.


  1. I agree with you about ideology - also reappropriating language. Theresa May is so concerned with freedom she's going to get rid of the Human Right's Act. But most politicians do things to get into, then stay in power. Not necessarily to help people. We do that much better from the ground.

  2. Even some of the macroeconomists aren't keen...

    1. Thanks for that. Yes, funny how Moody's rating doesn't seem to matter so much when it actually does drop.

  3. Part of the problem, yes. . The other part IMO is that politicians have become a separate and detached class of "professional" arguers and bullshitters. Lawyers, PR men, former "entrepreurs" - chancers who got lucky with no idea of reality such as Huhne. so detached from reality and ignorant of mathematics , technology and how most people live that they are effectively the captives of their advisors (Machievelli again). AS a result they have become no more than an elected PR veneer on the establishment, who actually write the laws to simply hijacks every ignorant ideology for an easy profit for their group, voted through by the lobby fodder du jour who don't understand it but are happy to recite whatever bullshit ideology they are given from Central offfice for their supper. That's one big reason the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

    This isn't a democracy, because we no longer elect the people who in fact control our lives.