As the world remembers Queen Elizabeth II and ponders the symbolism of her life and the monarchy, a fact likely to go largely unnoticed is that the month of her passing coincides with the thirty-fifth anniversary of a very different, but also highly symbolic, event in British history.
It was in September 1987 that then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine, uttered the immortal—and, for many, notorious—words: “There is no such thing as society”.
The contrast between the monarch who selflessly served her country, her faith and the traditions she inherited, and the neoconservative politician who saw life and the world in terms of market forces could not be starker.
It helps to illuminate the economic, social and cultural changes that have taken place in the last three and a half decades, and goes some way toward explaining many of the crises that we face—crises that can be traced back, with relatively little difficulty, to Thatcher’s ill-chosen words.
Naïve and Idealistic
To be fair, Thatcher was not advocating a devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy. She was elaborating a view of life that rejected the notion of society as a theoretical construct in favour of a vision of men and women as flesh-and-blood individuals seeing to their own needs first, then the needs of others.
It was a world in which no individual had an a priori claim on social welfare. She did not dispute that the unfortunate may need help, but she insisted that such provision should be made within a framework of rights and obligations that fell equally upon all individuals, rich and poor.
Her ideas are often dismissed as social Darwinism; they might equally be seen as naïve and idealistic, because they are so impractical. Essentially, they delegate social welfare, charity and altruism to market forces—dynamics that are impersonal in aggregate and self-interested at the individual level.
The destructive import of her words, however, is not confined to the narrow concerns of social welfare. It extends well into the macroeconomic sphere, and even into geopolitics.
Economic Expediency vs. Social Cohesion
Few who lived through Britain’s strikebound Winter of Discontent from November 1978 to February 1979 would deny that it paved the way for Thatcher to become Prime Minister the following May. There is little doubt that her economic policies, though stringent, were necessary.
But they came at an enormous social cost. Cuts in public spending led to record unemployment (11.9% in April 1984), while privatisation and attacks on the trade-union movement helped to dismantle important sources of cohesion in working-class life.
“Thatcherism”, of course, was not confined to the UK. It was a local manifestation of a Western trend inspired by classical liberal economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and supported by Thatcher’s political contemporary and ally, US President Ronald Reagan.
At a macro level, the trend resulted in financial deregulation, the increased mobility of capital, and globalization, in which manufacturing jobs migrated from Western nations to the low-cost workforces of developing countries, further undermining social cohesion in the West.
Many lines of historical cause and effect can be drawn between the economic expediency pursued by Thatcher and her peers and the social and cultural deprivation that we experience today. They all culminate with the rise of populism and Donald Trump becoming US President in 2016.
And with the rise of woke.
Self-Identity vs. Social Identity
Social theorists commonly distinguish between an individual’s social identity and self-identity. The former is a sense of self and belonging that derives from being part of a group; the latter is the sense of personal identity that one perceives as being intrinsic to oneself, independent of social influences.
Thatcher’s elevation of economic concerns above social ones, the effect of her policies in helping to erode social cohesion, and her emphasis on the primacy of individual initiative and enterprise, have created a milieu in which self-identity has taken precedence over social identity.
A consequence evident in her own time was the emergence of the yuppie, or young upward professional. The epitome of self-interest and social mobility (or rootlessness), the yuppie was a forerunner of today’s privileged meritocrats and technocrats, often referred to as “the élites”.
Meanwhile the less privileged—the outliers and minorities of society—have invested their sense of self-identity in aspects of themselves that put them (or are perceived to put them) at odds with the mainstream: race, sexuality, gender and so on. Hence the rise of identity politics and woke.
Woke is widely seen as the province of the left, but it has its roots in Thatcherism, as both result and reaction. Within the left, it works against the centrist tradition created by Tony Blair and New Labour in response to Thatcher (who once described Blair and New Labour as her “greatest achievement”).
And the fact that Western companies and cultural institutions are eagerly embracing woke values in the form of diversity and inclusion, corporate citizenship and responsible investment should surprise no-one. Woke is, after all, a product of the market forces that drive them.
There are two lessons to be drawn from this, both highlighted by the Queen’s passing.
A Time for Reflection, Risk and Opportunity
The first is that the conservatives who mourn her passing as the loss of a strand of continuity in an uncertain world should reflect—and reflect deeply—on the extent to which neoconservative values and policies have helped to create that uncertainty.
And while they’re about it, they should consider how to rebalance today’s prevailing right-wing economic orthodoxy with the more traditional social and cultural values that conservatism is meant to represent.
The second lesson is that the new King represents an opportunity and a risk. The risk is that his well-meaning but unworldly progressivism may tilt the monarchy further from social identity to the tendency for self-identity which has already captured too many members of the royal family.
But he may also provide an opportunity to re-align the progressive values he represents with the traditional values so well exemplified by the late Queen, to the benefit not just of the monarchy but society as a whole. One can only hope.