Few phrases in modern political history have done more damage than Margaret Thatcher's notorious remark that 'there is no such thing as society'. It was made to the magazine Woman's Own in 1987, when Thatcher was at the height of her power. It has been used against her ever since. The former prime minister's political opponents have manipulated the phrase to demonstrate that she was heartless, lacking in compassion and believed in an atomistic Hobbesian world where each individual looked only after himself.
To give a recent example, here is Tony Blair setting out his new 'vision for Britain' in the spring of this year: 'We are emerging from a long period in which Tory values held sway: elitism, selfish individualism; the belief that there is no such thing as society and its international equivalent - insularity and isolationism.' Even 15 years on, Margaret Thatcher's words are being twisted to portray the Conservative party as callow and selfish. They have caused so much damage that this autumn Iain Duncan Smith will launch an apologetic campaign to repudiate this troubled element of the Thatcherite legacy and rebrand the Conservatives as the party of society and the 'vulnerable'. But before he embarks on this course of action, it is worth re-examining what Thatcher really said and meant.
None of her antagonists - who have reiterated the text tens of thousands of times - has ever put the words in context. The then prime minister was being critical of people who looked to the state to solve every difficulty. She said: 'They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's 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 after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.'
Reading the full quote, it is easy to understand what was going on. Thatcher was speaking from within the Christian tradition. She was saying that each of us has a personal responsibility to look after our neighbours, and should not merely expect impersonal state institutions to do that job for us. This is how Thatcher herself explained her comment years later: 'My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.' Her remarks have echoes of Evelyn Waugh when accused of being out of touch with the man on the street. He said that 'the man in the street does not exist. There are individual men and women, each one of whom has an individual and immortal soul.'
But now comes a fascinating suggestion that Thatcher was actually invoking the philosopher John Macmurray. This is from Ian Lang, who served in Thatcher's Cabinet. In his autobiography, published this month, Lang discloses how he took exception to the remarks and 'in the intimacy of her study I thought I could (uncharacteristically) risk a confrontation with her by challenging that claim, which I thought wrong as well as politically inept'.
Lang says that he expected a 'fusillade'. There was none. 'She said: