The Times’s John F. Burns shares some wonderful memories of how tough Margaret Thatcher could be on her opponents — and also on her friends:
One of the stories retold in Britain since she died involved another occasional victim of handbagging, President Ronald Reagan, with whom she partnered in the policies that hastened the end of the cold war. Though they were friends, she was furious when the president, in 1988, approved an American military occupation of the turbulent Caribbean island of Grenada, which recognized Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, without telling Mrs. Thatcher or her government in advance.
In a telephone call to the White House in the aftermath of the invasion, the prime minister reprimanded the president so vehemently, and at such length, that he held the receiver away from his ear, grinning, and offered an appreciation to his aides.
“Gee, isn’t she marvelous!” he said.
Incidentally, Thatcher’s recent death occasioned much citation of her infamous 1987 interview in which she declared that there is no such thing as society. This was often cited as an example of how hateful and selfish she was. But as this fuller excerpt from that interview makes clear, her remark was taken entirely out of context:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and 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 help 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 and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”
There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”
But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. And the worst things we have in life, in my view, are where children who are a great privilege and a trust—they are the fundamental great trust, but they do not ask to come into the world, we bring them into the world, they are a miracle, there is nothing like the miracle of life—we have these little innocents and the worst crime in life is when those children, who would naturally have the right to look to their parents for help, for comfort, not only just for the food and shelter but for the time, for the understanding, turn round and not only is that help not forthcoming, but they get either neglect or worse than that, cruelty.
Thatcher was quite plainly saying that to blame “society” for one’s problems is to offload one’s responsibility for oneself onto others, and also to fail to see that “society” is not some abstract thing, but made up of men and women who take responsibility for themselves and, in their sense of charity and duty, for others. She was clearly not saying that there is no role for the state in helping people, but rather making the point that statism had deformed the moral sense people had about their obligations to themselves and to others. A sensible, necessary point, it seems to me.