Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

‘No such thing as society’: what it means for today’s welfare debate

Any Tories who might be asking ‘What Would Thatcher Do?’ about some of the political rows bubbling away today would surely wonder what her response to the current benefits debate might be. She kept well away from welfare reform, but she did have strong views on the role of government in helping people get on. Her notorious Woman’s Own interview provided us with the greatest insight, and in much greater detail than the ‘there’s no such thing as society’ line that everyone can quote. Here’s a longer extract from the transcript (which you can read in full on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website):

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

Her words, still forceful and still as divisive as that standalone ‘no such thing’ quote, do highlight one element missing from the welfare reform debate of the past fortnight. The focus has been either on cuts aimed at driving down welfare spending, or on Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, aimed at making work pay. But there has been little discussion of the importance of supply-side reforms which would drive the benefits bill down for the long-term. The focus of anti-poverty campaigners is very often on cash transfers to alleviate market failure of one form or another, rather than the importance of addressing the source of that pressure on low-income families.

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