"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 problems on society."
1987, Woman's Own magazine, an interview with Margaret Thatcher, winner of three general elections and the first Prime Minister to coexist with acid house. Reagan still had a couple of years left to go and it was a good time to be an estate agent in the UK, although everything would go very wrong in October of that year. The quote fit the image of the Conservative Party, and Margaret Thatcher herself, as being nihilistic, evil, black-hearted and inhuman, and along with 'on your bike and 'greed is good' is one of the quotes used to define the 1980s. As with 'greed is good', the quote is an extremely controversial one, even today, and is often repeated with no great thought given to its context or meaning (see, for example, 'Stupid things Margaret Thatcher has said').
"And you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, there are families."
On the one hand, the quote illustrated Thatcherism's core value, that of individual, personal responsibility; if you're disadvantaged, as Norman Tebbit put it, you have to get on your bike and fix things yourself - a philosophy which, at the time, appealed strongly to the self-employed, including all the DJs, record producers, and successful musicians extant today, although they would probably not admit it. Individual graft and hard work produced Eminem, whereas lottery-funded government money produces avant-garde theatrical productions which nobody goes to see, which do not change or affect the world in any way save to make the producer richer and the Arts Council slightly poorer.
The quote does not, however, stand up to a literal dissection. People do work in groups, sometimes quite successfully, and a society composed entirely of individuals would never be able to build dams, design aircraft, or pave roads. It would be a survivalist's wet dream, filled with armed individuals guarding their own caves in perpetuity. 'Society' exists; it simply does. Furthermore the quote illustrates one of Margaret Thatcher's other flaws, apart from an over-fondness for grand gestures. It was the flaw that eventually brought her down; a tendency to harp and lecture and an inability to soften the blow or compromise. And it was, ultimately, the individualism of the Conservative Party that brought it down; by 1997, the Tories were a squabbling ball of self-harm, whilst New Labour were resolutely 'on-message', freakishly so.
There is, however, a case for arguing that in a diverse, multicultural Britain, 'the British society' does not exist, because the population is so diverse. It is composed of individuals and families, football fans and snooker players, Christians and Muslims, and each tribe has a different set of shared experiences, beliefs, and upbringings, united perhaps only by television and David Beckham. These things might well appeal to the whole nation, but not to the extent of causing the majority of the population to fight and die in pointless wars, as a love of King and Country once did.
Even this is a generalisation, though. Britain has always been made up of societies, plural, but there has never been a 'British society', except in the most general sense. The rivalries between supporters of non-Premier League football clubs is testament to that. The village in which I grew up, in the middle of deep England, has always been slightly suspicious of the next village along, whilst towns, cities, secret societies, genders and affiliations have riven Britain since time immemorial. My own ancestors, the Normans, looked down on the Saxons, although we have eventually come to co-exist. In Britain today, Christians, Muslims, white people, black people, Turks and Albanians, all are united in the belief that their society is better than the next and that the others are weak or greedy or just scum. That is the advantage of multiculturalism; the constant exposure to other cultures reminds us that we are are all equally vicious, and that no one group is more or less angelic than any other.
The target Thatcher had in mind when she said 'society' was more likely the modern welfare state, which is not really a society, but a machine, a big cold hard mechanical machine, just as the state is a machine. The welfare state elevates the poor and lowers the rich, by giving money to the former and taxing the latter. The idea is for the poor and rich to become averaged out, and meet in the middle, and for everybody to be the same, now and forever. But this is outside the scope of this writeup.
"...and no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It's 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."