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No Such Thing
Thursday 28th April 2011


No phrase of Margaret Thatcher caused as much uproar, and was so wilfully misinterpreted, as "There is no such thing as society."  As usual with famous quotes, she didn't quite say that, but she was pretty close. Her exact words came in an interview with Woman's Own in 1987: "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."

Still smarting, perhaps, from the tide of criticism that had rolled over her ever since, Lady Thatcher tried to clarify things in her memoirs: what she had meant is  that "society was not an abstraction [...] but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations."

She might have been surprised, and perhaps relieved, to learn that she didn't invent the phrase at all. The man who did was the author David Lodge, in his early novel Ginger, You're Barmy, first published in 1962 and re-released by Vintage to coincide with the publication of his new novel A Man of Parts. The novel is based on Lodge's experience of National Service, and the narrator, Jon, a recent graduate who is essentially Lodge, is trying to explain to an oafish sergeant-"Wodjer wanner read that sort of crap for?"-why he is reading Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson, a highly influential work of literary criticism at the time. 
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