SIWOTI: the Margaret Thatcher Edition

By skepticlawyer


In order to understand this post, you need to be familiar with this cartoon. Familiar? Good, now onto the ‘fun’ part.

As a general rule, I try to avoid the situation in which the cartoon’s protagonist finds himself. That is, getting into lengthy online disputes where – it would seem – very few people are persuaded, many people become more entrenched in their views, and everyone gets very, very angry.

However, in the last three weeks, I have broken my own rule. Twice, both times on Facebook. The first time was after the Reason Foundation published my equal marriage paper. You’ve all seen what equal marriage does to debates on this blog; remember when we came within a whisker of consigning it to the same ‘too hard’ basket as gentle macchia, abortion, and Israel-Palestine?

Well, it doesn’t get any better on Facebook, believe me, and sometimes it really is like taking a quick dip in the sewer.

The second time was yesterday, with the death of Margaret Thatcher. Facebook: bringing adults closer together so that they can fling digital poo just like their primate ancestors threw the real stuff in days gone by.

Wow, that was kind of epic. And not in a good way.

Breaking the ‘I refuse to do SIWOTI’ rule means at least one–sometimes two–sleepless nights, and the painstaking countering of various myths and legends. In Thatcher’s case, there are two common ones: ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’, and ‘There is no such thing as society’. The first is nicely debunked here, by the BBC:

When Sir Alec Douglas-Home stood down as Conservative leader, Mrs Thatcher voted for Ted Heath in the 1965 leadership election and was rewarded with a post as spokeswoman on housing and land.

She campaigned vigorously for the right of council tenants to buy their houses and was a constant critic of Labour’s policy of high taxation.

When Ted Heath entered Downing Street in 1970, she was promoted to the cabinet as education secretary with a brief to implement spending cuts in her department.

One of these resulted in the withdrawal of free school milk for children aged between seven and 11 which led to bitter attacks from Labour and a press campaign which dubbed her “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”.

She herself had argued in cabinet against the removal of free milk. She later wrote: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”

This myth reveals the failure of many people to understand cabinet government in a Westminster system (briefly, in public, members of the cabinet must all agree), which is likely emblematic of a wider problem of political literacy, and not just in Britain. The ‘there is no such thing as society’ myth concerns the disingenuous truncation of a quotation in order to create a strawman. This is what Thatcher actually said:

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. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”

There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”

But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. And the worst things we have in life, in my view, are where children who are a great privilege and a trust—they are the fundamental great trust, but they do not ask to come into the world, we bring them into the world, they are a miracle, there is nothing like the miracle of life—we have these little innocents and the worst crime in life is when those children, who would naturally have the right to look to their parents for help, for comfort, not only just for the food and shelter but for the time, for the understanding, turn round and not only is that help not forthcoming, but they get either neglect or worse than that, cruelty.

If anything, Thatcher is arguing against the sort of atomised society with which she is commonly credited as upholding, although there is also a strong sense of what I have come to call ‘hard reciprocity’ built into her comments.

Experimental psychologist Jon Haidt has spent quite a bit of time emphasising that a focus on the morality of reciprocity — fairness/justice, and harm/care models of governance — is characteristic of those on the political left, while a concern with authority/respect, purity/sanctity, and ingroup/loyalty tends to be found on the political right. I’ve always found this to be quite seriously wrongheaded, although perhaps it may have come about as consequence of Haidt’s American background (that is, he’s mistaken politics in his own country for politics elsewhere). For a conservative of the Thatcher sort, reciprocity is front and centre (‘it’s not fair!’, otherwise), while the behaviour of some of the members of the union movement last night — everything from crowing delight in someone’s death to street parties — was pure ingroup/loyalty tribalism. With a nice side-serving of misogyny, which probably plays into the purity/sanctity pairing.

Myths apart

Leaving the myths to one side, what did my sustained exercise in SIWOTI teach me, apart from ‘you’re really underslept, now, aren’t you?’

Here’s an (incomplete) list:

1. There really are people in Britain who really do think there’s a money tree somewhere in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, meaning that Britain’s economy in the 1970s was somehow sustainable. These people probably also think that British Leyland made great cars in the same period. This view is far less widespread among Australian Labor voters, all of whom seem to understand how far down the pan the Australian economy was in the late 70s, and how urgently it needed to be fixed. To be fair, I have seen it among Greens voters in Australia, but even there it is by no means universal. Australians of most political persuasions — but especially the two major political groupings — are hard-headed and pragmatic.

2. Tony Blair is (I hate to admit this, it’s like pulling teeth) a far more impressive figure than I realised, because he somehow weaned Labour off the above (widely-held) view, as well as stopping them from singing ‘Keep the Red Flag Flying’. How he managed to do this is both mysterious and admirable.

3. It’s common to encounter people who think it’s possible to reconcile Thatcher’s early and bold support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in 1966)  with her later support for Section 28 (in the 80s). Here’s a tip, it isn’t. She was throwing red meat to a segment of her party. End of.

4. I get outstandingly snitty and sarcastic when I’m engaging in SIWOTI. Here are two status updates evincing the behaviour:

I’ve been very fair-minded and even handed all day, but I am going to indulge in one bit of (entirely reasonable) snittiness: I’d like to see a Venn diagram of all the lefties who think we should close down the coal mines and those who cheer Thatcher’s death because she closed down the coal mines.

And another:

Since her arrival in Hell, Thatcher has already shut down the unprofitable and unproductive furnaces.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. That scores one on both sides.


  1. Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    You’re being way too fair. The people celebrating the death of Thatcher are scum. There is no way to sugar coat it. Pretending they get a free pass because they are uneducated buffoons is giving the same free pass to anyone who’s ever done anything evil and claimed stupidity as an excuse.

    They should be remembered and shamed, no more or less.

  2. Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    I must admit I do wonder about the misogyny. If the partiers were conservatives/libertarians and the hate figure a female left-wing leader, we’d never hear the end of it.

    A lot of lefties and feminists (to the extent that they overlap) do need to take a good long look at themselves.

    [Also, I have a very low opinion of people who behave like that; I wanted, however, to preserve Haidt’s categories, because I think they’re revealing.]

  3. TerjeP
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    Tony Blair is (I hate to admit this, it’s like pulling teeth) a far more impressive figure than I realised, because he somehow weaned Labour off the above (widely-held) view, as well as stopping them from singing ‘Keep the Red Flag Flying’. How he managed to do this is both mysterious and admirable.

    I was living in England in 1997 when Tony Blair was opposition leader. Yes he did do something somewhat magical. It seemed to be driven by charisma and an unrelenting smile, but I’m sure there was more to it than that. Ultimately however I think Tony Blair in government was still hindered by old Labour and then I think he went off the rails regarding Iraq and WMD.

  4. Posted April 10, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you, SL. I am one who didn’t go to the full quotation in which MT said there was no such thing as society. You don’t say where it comes from, but I’m inclined to use it anyway, party to apologise retrospectively for the way I used the short statement, and to agree with her in what she actually said.

    And Meryl Streep’s MT is the finest sustained piece of acting I have ever seen on screen.

  5. kvd
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    ex-PM Thatcher complaining about the need for cabinet solidarity? Now there’s a puzzle. As to the milk, I stopped drinking when they chlorinated it 🙂

  6. Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    As to the milk, I stopped drinking when they chlorinated it

    Well played, kvd, well played.

  7. kvd
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Well I could have made comment upon a quarter pint of ill-mixed curdled scum, but then you were talking about milk, as opposed to her political opponents..

  8. Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    The people celebrating the death of Thatcher are scum.

    I’m not sure what’s more amusing, all the people being sanctimonious dicks on the left, or all the precious butt-hurt on the right.

  9. kvd
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Relax desipis. Hyperbowl is not the exclusive preserve of the left; in all things, I try for balance 🙂

  10. Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Since this post is proving extremely popular, I’ll also direct readers to Lorenzo’s different take, which incidentally includes the funniest Christopher Hitchens story you’ll ever read:

  11. Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    kvd, I was not intending to get involve the in the debauchery so I’m not sure there’s any need for me to relax. I was just making an observation about an example of natural human behaviour.

  12. rancid owl
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, but that quote re ‘no such thing as society’ reinforces that Thatcher did indeed say “there is no such thing as society”. Where does the quote even suggest that she wasn’t saying or intending to say that?

  13. Will
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Yes, “there’s no such thing as a society” quote is a truncated quote that’s quite unfair as a standalone argument. However, the broader communitarian-style critique is, I think, aptly targeted at Thatcher.

    The complaint against atomism isn’t answered by referring to any number of individuals creating a rich tapestry through their will based on reciprocity. The charge against atomism isn’t a charge against complexity it is a charge against methodological individualism based no the contention it ignores the social preconditions of individual capacities. You need to read someone like Charles Taylor to get the proper argument, but essentially its about language and institutions which are ontologically prior to or at least simultaneous to the capacities which grant agency.

    That’s a serious philosophical critique and its something that libertarians and liberal outside Raz or Kymlicka are not well-placed to answer adequately.

  14. Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Yobbo. I’ll add that when you get a close up look (via TV) of those who are cheering & dancing in the street, none of them are good for anything but turning into compost.
    By their CV most are a dead loss to society, and would do the world a favour were they to top themselves.

  15. Posted April 10, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    If Charles Taylor thinks that substituting government for existing social institutions is somehow going to either facilitate or improve the social preconditions of individual capacities, then I’ve got a bridge I want to sell him (I thought this about Taylor at Oxford, and my view of him hasn’t changed).

    Unlike many libertarians, I am not per se opposed to the welfare state (I accept Hayek’s argument about ‘a floor through which no one should be allowed to fall’), but I think a lot of communitarianism (the weakest of contemporary moral philosophies, and why it’s losing ground so rapidly) just doesn’t grasp the limits to what a welfare state can achieve in terms of capacity-building.

    Even an extremely generously conceived socialist-style welfare state (which no one has now, because it’s unaffordable) is not about some sort of quasi religious group togetherness; it’s about making sure that people don’t finish up homeless because they can’t pay their bills if they lose their jobs. It is always conceived of as temporary.

    If anything, a welfare state administered by a faceless bureaucracy will contribute to atomization, not lesson it, although that may be no bad thing: community-based welfare in days gone by included things like young women being subjected to virginity tests before being able to claim poor relief. That was in the South Wales Valleys, in the 1930s.

    So not just the Egyptian police…

  16. Will
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I raised Taylor simply because his essay on atomism is a conveniently concise articulation of the problem with the atomistic fallacy which assails certain versions of liberalism and libertarians, and certainly Thatcher’s views.

    The core of the critique isn’t actually about government. Outside of denying that the family unit can provide social context by itself, it is an open question exactly what might generate and sustain the kinds of social preconditions of agency.

    Importantly, the questions of flourishing beyond the minimum agency require social conditions, but these are better left separate to this ontological question because they are ex ante concerns adequately captured by public goods etc.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is you don’t have to accept any specific communitarian views about the proper size of government in fostering these putative social preconditions to recognise the critique. Though I think there are obviously powerful arguments in terms of law (private property, for example), language and institutions of culture which are a going to be difficult to disentangle from the state. That is better considered as part of the different political philosophies which meet the critique.

    As an example of a non-statist answer, it could consist at a primary level in a private moral obligation for supporting autonomy. Raz makes this argument in his masterpiece, The Morality of Freedom, though he certainly extends it via the Rawlisan kind of device to a broader liberal political morality of limited but perfectionist government.

  17. Mel
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink


    I hadn’t heard the “Thatcher milk snatcher” claim before Thatcher’s death but you’ve now cleared it up as far as I’m concerned. Thanks.

    I read the full Thatcher “there is no such thing as society” quote 20 plus years ago and since that time I’ve been annoyed by lefties who have ignorantly or wilfully misrepresented Thatcher’s actual argument. When I first read the quote in full I understood it as, among other things, an argument against reification, that is: “[t]he error of regarding an abstraction as a material thing, and attributing causal powers to it—in other words the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

    Thatcher quite correctly argues that “society” can not be construed as a beneficent social actor that exists independently of the individuals, families, institutions etc that make up the society.

    As an aside, one learns about the dangers of reification in Sociology 101, but this doesn’t stop even good sociologists from talking about society, capitalism, the working class etc in reified terms.

  18. Mel
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I spent a few hours looking into the coal miner’s dispute and I must say I’m largely on Thatcher’s side. The coal industry had far too many workers, was heavily subsidised and the coal union had a history of bad behaviour that hurt ordinary citizens and usurped the sovereignty of the government. It had to be tamed and I don’t blame Thatcher for doing it.

    The major thing I don’t agree with is how the communities that were gutted by the loss of 20,000 jobs were allowed to rot.

    This leads to the next big problem I have with Thatcher’s way of thinking- victimising people on welfare even though the raw number of folk on welfare is determined by macro factors that are, by definition, beyond the control of individuals. Under Thatcher the official number of unemployed persons reached 3.6 million. The real rate was probably closer to 5 million. What is the point in kicking the heads of the people without jobs when no jobs for them exist? Also, why blame those who join the underclass and give up looking for work and trying to come to terms with a life on welfare? I suspect many of the folk who do this have made an astute judgement of their own lack of labour market competitiveness in a situation of high unemployment and that it is psychologically functional (at least in the short term) to simply give up.

    The plutocrats who benefit from current social arrangements would have much more to worry about if the underclass demanded a better deal and were prepared to organise and fight for it.

  19. Posted April 11, 2013 at 5:03 am | Permalink


    You did say where the quote came from, and I gave you full credit in my post:

  20. Posted April 11, 2013 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    We are under concerted spam attack again. Sorry about this, everyone.

  21. derrida derider
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    No friend of Maggie I, but I argued at the time with my lefty friends that Thatcher’s view on this stuff was far more nuanced (though not necessarily any more correct) than the out-of-context quote indicated.

    On the coal mines its a matter of record that the Wilson Labour government shut down more mines than Mrs T ever did – without bringing on a near civil war. But Mrs T’s aim wasn’t closing ineffcient mines per se but smashing some overmighty commo unions. This may well have been a worthy aim, but don’t confuse it with concern for the coal industry – if that was the aim she’d have gone about it differently.

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