It is always worth recalling that Margaret Thatcher never said “There’s no such thing as society”. After all, what she actually said is much more interesting…
“[People constantly seeking government intervention] are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
When considering the Thatcher legacy, one must always keep in mind the foundation of her belief system, namely a romanticised view of the English middle classes. In Thatcher’s world, a middle class freed from the shackles of over-taxation and imbued with a renewed entrepreneurial spirit would “rediscover” their spiritual (i.e. Christian) calling towards philanthropy and general neighbourliness.
For a generation of radicals, both leftist and centrist, used to thinking of Thatcher as the latest avatar of unalloyed authoritarian evil, it is surprising to discover in Thatcher what is essentially a social liberal ideal. Liberal or otherwise, however, it is an ideal that fails my primary test of political theory; it does not understand why things are as they are.
Beyond that, government was and is the only option. In the early stages, monarchy sustained a larger society by giving the strong power over the weak. Later, democracy emerged to protect the weak from the strong and, as a consequence, the strong from themselves. In either case, neighbourliness was not something that could be depended upon; greed was, as ever, the only human driver one could rely on with any certainty.
Ultimately, society is not the natural state of affairs between humans; it is a situation that we have decided to arrange to be so because it is beneficial to us. Of late, we have been constantly reminded that the first role of government is the defence of the people, but history shows that it just as equally refers to defending the people from each other as from any other group. Indeed, my response to Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement would have been in this form;
“Society does exist, and it does so primarily to prevent the poor from rising up with flaming torches and shoving pitchforks up the arses of the rich.”
My point is, the real debate in any political system is in the trade-off between liberty and society. Socialists believe in overdoing it; sacrificing too many liberties to give society a big margin. Capitalists believe in tactically underdoing it; allowing society to be dangerous iniquitous by gambling all their chips on a draconian justice system. Liberals have always plied the middle way; only we have chosen the difficult path of striking the right balance.
The danger for the Liberal Democrats is that Mrs Thatcher was the first leader of either party to really try the capitalist approach of dangling precariously on the edge of the cliff being held up by the police. Before her, both Labour and Conservatives erred on the side of caution; Labour by curtailing economic liberty, Tories by curtailing social liberty. With Blair, both parties have now swung wildly off the cliff with little to hold them in place.
As I have said before, liberalism is the beginning of wisdom; knowing that the desired solution is right on the line of that balance is the start of the solution. But it is not the end of wisdom; you have to know where you are relative to the line and how you got there to move in the right direction. The path to the liberal ideal is not necessarily liberalism in all its glory. Only when the pure liberals can show that they know which side of the line they are on will I be convinced.