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Dominic Lawson: There is no such thing as society, so be wary when politicians enlist it to their cause

The idea of a country united by shared national values is now more than ever a chimera

Friday 29 September 2006 00:00 BST
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At some point in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference next week, David Cameron will say the following: "We do think there is such a thing as society. We just don't think that it's the same thing as the state." This has not been leaked to me. I speak with no authority other than the observation that the Tory leader recites these words at every opportunity, no matter how obscure the occasion.

I believe that Mr Cameron launched this signature tune at an address to the Policy Exchange think-tank on 29 June 2005. He was then Shadow Education Secretary, and still lagging well behind David Davies in the campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party.

Since winning that contest, he has tried it out on, among others, Stirling University, Soar Valley Community College and the Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006 conference. Well, if it's good enough for Google Zeit-geist Europe 2006, it should be good enough for the "modern, compassionate" Conservative Party Conference.

Any doubts I might have had were set aside when Gordon Brown , at the start of his speech to the Labour Party Conference, declared that as a result of the past nine years, this country is "no longer a Britain of 'no such thing as society' and me-tooism." I still can't quite understand what Gordon meant by 'me-tooism', unless it was a coded attack on universal benefits. But the intended meaning of the first bit was crystal clear: we destroyed Thatcherism. Similarly, David Cameron's stock phrase is designed to tell the public: "Don't worry; we're not harsh individualists like you-know-who. We care."

Alas for Margaret Thatcher. Nothing she ever said in a long and deeply controversial political career resonates as much as the remark she made in 1987: "There is no such thing as society." For her political enemies it encapsulated the heartless individualism they saw as her philosophy. In her memoirs, she complained that her detractors had "distorted beyond recognition" what she meant, which, she insisted, 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."

To be fair to both sides, it is necessary to read the transcript of what she said at the time, in an interview with Woman's Own, which was published in November 1987 under the unlikely headline of "Aids, Education and the Year 2000". The then Prime Minister told her interviewer, Douglas Keay: "We have gone through a period when too many people have been given to understand 'I have a problem; it is the Government's job to deal with it.'

"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 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."

Do you see what I see? Thatcher's peroration builds up to an assertion which we would now describe as classic Blairspeak: the notion that nobody can expect a right unless he or she has first demonstrated responsibility. Arguments about whether Tony Blair is or is not Thatcher's heir are never going to be settled. Blair thinks he is; Thatcher - foreign policy apart - thinks he certainly is not.

Whichever is the case, I was fascinated that the Labour Party conference roared its approval on Tuesday when Mr Blair chose to attack Mr Cameron solely from a Thatcherite perspective: "He panders to anti-Americanism. He says he'll sort out illegal immigration but opposes the things essential to do it. [He says he will back] nuclear power only as a last resort. His policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should give him a nice big hug."

Mr Blair, of course, would never have said that "there is no such thing" as society. Both he and Gordon Brown use the word much too often to wish it consigned to the dustbin of the dictionary. But when politicians talk of the "demands of society" or its needs and desires, we should be extremely wary, and count not just our spoons, but the entire contents of our canteen. Almost inevitably, it is a rhetorical trick designed to persuade us that what the party leaders and their followers want is what everyone wants.

Perhaps the most creepy modern example of that was Mr Blair's remark in the 1997 Labour Party election manifesto that "New Labour is nothing less than the political arm of the British people as whole." That is the spirit in which Mr Blair declared to the Labour Conference on Tuesday that "the core vote of this party is the country [as a whole]", and in which Mr Brown told the same assembly a day earlier: "Let the message go out to the people of Britain: your concerns are our concerns. Your values are our values." Oh, really? If the Labour Party genuinely believes that, it may be in for something of a shock at the next general election.

Hard as it might be for those who wish to represent us, the idea of a country united by shared national values is now more than ever a chimera. Much as it might annoy Dr John Reid, a devout Muslim will feel more of a sense of community with his co-religionist in another country than he will with atheists living in his own postal area. This phenomenon is not necessarily a sinister one.

The government of which Dr Reid is a peripatetic member frequently talks about the benefits and challenges of globalisation. Globalisation, greatly accelerated by the internet, inevitably brings with it the creation of new communities of interest which effortlessly transcend national boundaries. EBay is the modern epitome of the classical idea of society, which is to say, groups of people coming together for a common purpose. The role of politicians and legislators in eBay, now one of the world's biggest companies, has been and is precisely nothing. Its millions of members regulate themselves, thank you very much - and there's much more of the same to come.

Adam Smith would have adored eBay, corresponding so closely as it does to his observation that it is through countless individuals lawfully pursuing their self-interest that societies as a whole prosper and benefit. He saw this remarkable paradox as part of a divine plan. So, I believe, did Margaret Thatcher; but she was wise enough never to say so publicly. Even she realised that no matter how strong your conviction, there are some beliefs which no British politician should ever utter.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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