Archive for November, 2018

We are society’s hands


(Commemoration of the Fortieth Anniversary of the United Nations by United Nations Photo on flickr)

There’s a Thatcher quote I often see out of context, and that bugs me. Here’s the quote:

there is no such thing as society

And here it with more of its context:

I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is 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 are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

I am no conservative (bar one election when I voted Green I have always voted Labour) but Thatcher is not saying she doesn’t believe in society, she’s saying that society is the sum of the people in it: if we do not act then society cannot act. Sure, there are other nasty things in the quote that I disagree with …

  1. Why pick on the homeless? My mum often says that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its least able members. Thatcher clearly didn’t feel, and she should have done.
  2. “People must look to themselves first.” There’s truth in thisyou have to love yourself first before loving others, and you should put your oxygen mask on before helping others—but it could also be a way to excuse self-centred behaviour, especially juxtaposed against her dig at homeless people.
  3. The final part about entitlement and obligation also seems unkind, but there is an odd way we feel more comfortable talking about rights than responsibilities.

The pithy version of this quote is taken to mean that Thatcher believed that society was dead, but what it actually meant was she saw that society only acts when people take responsibility and act. There’s a clearer statement of her view in this quote

In our philosophy the purpose of the life of the individual is not to be the servant of the State and its objectives, but to make the best of his talents and qualities. The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one’s own property, of paying one’s way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves. That is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything, and no-one is responsible for the State.

(N.B. That begs the question of how we deal with those who have very few talents, either through illness, mental or physical, or through drug addiction etc. That’s where Thatcher and I diverge again.)

The core of Thatcher’s quote, the idea that we are responsible for the actions of the state, reminds me of this religious quote.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

(N.B. It is often attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), though it’s not by her, as Timothy Phillips explores here.)

It is the same idea: good is achieved through our actions.