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BLOG: A society Margaret Thatcher's disciples would do well to acknowledge

You may have noticed that a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has died, eliciting in death a similar combination of opprobrium and fervour as in her 11 years of power. Like millions of others of my generation, Margaret Thatcher was a seemingly permanent fixture of our early lives, so love or loathe her the woman soared high above us all as something of a supernatural demigod, untouchable, fearless and always winning.

Like others of her era, the equally indelible Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan in the White House or even Liverpool FC in the then Football League Championship, it was inconceivable to imagine anyone else could be, or ever was, top of their particular tree.

Perhaps my earliest politically-based memory was coming downstairs as a six-year-old to see my mum in our living room watching the end of the 1979 election coverage, genuinely crying at the prospect of a Thatcher government and the departure of the battle weary James Callaghan. And to confirm my now barely-concealed-anyway political inheritance, a year or so later I can still see the demonstration as we drove from my dad’s in London to a B&B holiday in Kent; loud hailers yelling “Maggie Maggie Maggie – out out out!” for which the driver suspended his usual cynicism to pip his horn in support.

So I can’t pretend to have enjoyed the saturation coverage (Sky News has seemingly cleared its schedule ever since, indicating the stuff we are usually fed is either completely pointless airtime filling or that other news – murders, war, famine, the Premier League etc – have simply stopped happening) but in amongst the debate over whether Mrs Thatcher was a good leader or not and the usual banalities and platitudes lies a fierce and fascinating debate about the sort of country we are, and the sort of place we want to live in.

Most notable for me has been a detailed examination of her apparent “no such thing as society” line, which her supporters have repeatedly insisted she never said. While she may not have said the words in quite that order, the sentiment was clearly expressed, as this excerpt from her interview with Women’s Own in 1987 makes clear:

“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.”

Many social workers will know how many of the people they work with need some external input to address the challenges that make their lives chaotic, vulnerable or unmanageable. Many will also concur that governments need people to take responsibility, including families and friends who take on caring responsibilities. But must we be required to continually restate the obvious imperative that governments, whether local or national, also need to provide strong and effective services for when people have no idea how to fend for themselves or when that informal assistance is inadequate, or even turns into abuse.

Today’s disciples of Maggie, offering Thatcherism 2.0 – note the intellectually incoherent Big Society or George Osborne’s nonsensical and divisive comments about Mick Philpott and welfare claimants last week – would do well to recognise that there are individuals, there are families but there are also societies prepared to pool their resources to help those who can’t help themselves.

Personally I see little schadenfreude but just sad irony in how this remarkable former premier found herself in precisely this category – albeit with the wealth to be able to cope – during her final, frail years of life.

Joe Devo is Head of Communications for the British Association of Social Workers