"No such thing as society"?

Ipsos MORI tested two versions of Margaret Thatcher's famous "no such thing as society" interview, each with representative samples of the population - one with just that simple statement, and one with a much longer excerpt from the interview. And there is a dramatic difference in results.

Ipsos MORI tested two versions of Margaret Thatcher’s famous “no such thing as society” interview, each with representative samples of the population – one with just that simple statement, and one with a much longer excerpt from the interview. And there is a dramatic difference in results: 74% disagree with the bald statement, but 63% agreed with the longer excerpt (only 24% disagreed with the longer statement). There has been much discussion of the intention of the simple quote – with some suggesting that it was intended to mean that society cannot be thought of as a “thing”, rather than a complete denial of commonality. This seems to be the first time that the full context has been tested with the public in a poll, and suggests that the broader sentiment behind it resonates with a majority people. Of course, from a questionnaire design point of view we need to exercise some caution in our conclusions: it is usually best practice to test short statements with single issues, so that we are clear what people are basing their judgments on. Here there are multiple points made in the longer excerpt, and people therefore may be agreeing with any one individual element, rather than the overall statement. But we still think this is a useful take on a much quoted phrase and its context.

Here is the longer excerpt from Margaret Thatcher's interview for Woman's Own magazine (1 October 1987):

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. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And there is 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 to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute said:

“There has been much discussion of the intention of the simple quote – with some suggesting that it was intended to mean that society cannot be thought of as a “thing”, rather than a complete denial of commonality. This seems to be the first time that the full context has been tested with the public in a poll, and suggests that the broader sentiment behind it resonates with a majority of people in 2013. But it also still divides opinion, with a marked difference in agreement between Conservative and Labour voters. This probably reflects their distinct views of the role of the state, but it may also reflect opinions of Mrs Thatcher, given the statement is still so deeply associated with her.”

Technical Note

Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 1,010 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain. Interviews were conducted by telephone 13th – 15th April 2013. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.

 

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