Analysis: MSPs should alter debate after ‘society’ clear-up

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THE Scottish Parliament will mark Baroness Thatcher’s death today, when a debate called by the independent and Green MSPs will debate the motion: “There is Still Such a Thing as Society”.

It is a non-too-implicit riposte to the late former prime minister and the infamous quote which, for her opponents, continues to sum up all that is wrong about her vision for the country.

But have the MSPs got the premise of their debate right?

During his sermon at Lady Thatcher’s funeral service yesterday, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, drew nods of approval from Conservatives in the congregation and on the Twittersphere by noting that Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” quote had been widely misunderstood.

Instead, he said, “it refers to some impersonal entity to which we are tempted to surrender our independence”.

The no-such-thing-as-society comment originates from an interview the then plain Mrs Thatcher did in September 1983 with Woman’s Own magazine, in which she attempted to explain her views on the relationship between people and the State.

“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,” she declared.

“‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problems on society.

“And you know,” she concluded, “there’s no such thing as society.”

The six-word quote was, as she later conceded in her autobiography, something of a gaffe.

Writing after she left office, she tried to explain what she had meant.

“My meaning… 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…

“The error to which I was objecting was the confusion of society with the State as the helper of first resort.”

It was left to another woman – Samantha Cameron, the Prime Minister’s wife – to say it better.

It was she, according to the current Prime Minister, who came up with one of his own favourite, and very Thatcherite phrases: “Of course, there is such a thing as society. It’s not just the same as the State.”

So perhaps a better question for MSPs to discuss today at Holyrood is not the existence or otherwise of society – but the health of that society, as distinct from the State, as it stands. And, from beyond the grave, Lady Thatcher has had her say this week.

Among one of the hundreds of anecdotes that have emerged in the week since she died, was one from the Labour MP Frank Field.

During Westminster’s parliamentary debate on her death, he revealed he had recently asked her to name her greatest disappointment when in government.

She replied: “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society, and we haven’t.”

That there is a thing called society is obvious.

MSPs have the chance, like Lady Thatcher, to examine the weaknesses and challenges that the society she helped to create still faces.