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.
“I opened my mouth to launch into a defence of the study of literature,” he begins, then realises it is a hopeless task. “I was not eager to return to the university because I thought my research would be of any use, to myself, or to others. All human activity was useless, but some kinds were more pleasant than others. The Army had taught me that much philosophy. There was no such thing as communication operating over the whole of society. In fact, there was no such thing as society: just a collection of little self-contained boxes, roped untidily together and set adrift to float aimlessly on the waters of time, the occupants of each box convinced that theirs was the most important box, heedless of the claims of the rest.”
It is a bleaker vision than Lady Thatcher’s but not so very different: Lodge saw us as autonomous individuals, Lady Thatcher worried about us depending on the State to provide for our every need. There is a clear connection between her vision and David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society, which has not perhaps been sufficiently appreciated. But if the Prime Minister can find the time to read Lodge’s witty and still fresh novel, it might cure him of the notion of introducing some form of non-military National Service, as he promised before the election. He has been curiously reticent about it ever since.