Driving home this morning I catch Woman’s Hour, the excellent Radio 4 programme, where they are conducting a balloon debate. The question is, ‘Who has done the most to put women on the political map in the UK?’, and the four individuals in the balloon are Mary Wollstonecraft (author in 1792 of the Vindication of the Rights of Women), Emmeline Pankhurst (the great heroine of suffragette activism), Barbara Castle (who gave British women the Equal Pay Act and ensured that the contraceptive pill would be readily available for all – perhaps the two most important changes to women’s position in a century), and finally Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman prime minister.
By an overwhelming majority and to the audience’s obvious delight, Margret Thatcher is the first to be tossed out. And I think, a good thing too – it is just a pity we did not have such simple, practical solutions to her presence when she was PM. She had the unique knack of correctly identifying every important political problem the country faced, and then choosing a solution that actually made things worse. Her period in office began with her quickly becoming the most unpopular PM in British history, and ended with the British middle classes rioting in the streets of London about her wretched poll tax. By the time she was finally ejected from office (by her own party), I could no longer listen to her voice without feeling something between enraged and physically sick. Had it not been for the Falklands War, she would have been out on her ear in one of the shortest premierships ever recorded.
I must admit that the Falklands was the one subject on which I actually agreed with Thatcher. Only the worst charlatan or the greatest fool could imagine that handing over 1400 innocent people to the truly vicious Argentine military dictatorship could possibly be justified by either an 18th-century treaty with Spain or the desire to harm her government by any means possible.
Nowadays, however, I find myself increasingly agreeing with another of her ideas – and in this case, perhaps as central an idea to Thatcherism as there ever was. Am I undergoing a conversion?
The idea in question is Thatcher’s notorious dictum that there is no such thing as society. Or, more fully:
there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. [Interview 23 September 1987]
At the time I had quite grand ideas about the reality of society, and regarded Thatcher as simply another Tory fool with absolutely no understanding about how society really works – definitely a candidate for a GCSE Sociology course.
Now I am less confident. And again I have Margaret Thatcher (and her associates) to thank for this. For there really is very little left of society – now that, for three decades, the other great social force Thatcher was willing to acknowledge – the market – has had its way. What really is left of society? So well done Margaret, I’m finally persuaded: there is no such thing as society. There’s just the desert you and your kind left behind. Thanks.