A remark by Boris Johnson, that “there is such a thing as society” in a recent press conference reflects the all-encompassing social impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was also a significant political statement. His carefully chosen words reflect an evolution taking place in the UK Conservative Party’s ideology.
On a fundamental level, Johnson’s words are an apparent rebuke of the much-quoted sentiments of former the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. In a 1987 interview, she proclaimed there was “no such thing as society” (although this condensed quotation is often used in isolation and out of context).
Thatcher’s opinion, delivered at the height of her power, has since been viewed as epitomising the uncaring face of Thatcherism. She is remembered for espousing a political creed that encouraged an environment of selfish individualism in which people overlooked the less fortunate and neglected broader social and communitarian concerns. Books have since been written about the history of the 1980s, with this quote as their title.
John Major’s change of heart
It’s certainly true that one of Thatcher’s more negative legacies was a divided and less equal society. Her immediate successor John Major sought to address this when he declared he wanted to create a nation “at ease with itself”.
This was an implicit acknowledgement of the social dislocation caused by the Thatcher years. Major sought a more social and unifying focus in his policymaking. However, when the Conservatives heavily lost the 1997 general election, many concluded that they had seemed out of touch with core social issues, continuing to prioritise individualism over society, and were punished at the polls accordingly.
After that election debacle, the Conservative party gradually began to address this Achilles heel, seeking to revive interest in social policy among its supporters. Modernisers within the party identified this as a crucial area on which to focus if the party wanted to improve its image and ultimately regain office.
Yet this was a slow and arduous process, and only after the party’s third consecutive general election defeat in 2005 did a revived and concerted social policy agenda truly flourish. After becoming party leader in late 2005, arch-moderniser David Cameron tackled the issue head on. In his acceptance speech he boldly declared “there is such a thing a society, it’s just not the same as the state”.
David Cameron’s nebulous big society
Cameron cultivated a more socially-infused language, and this arguably came to a head when he launched his “big society” agenda in 2009. This, he hoped, would form the blueprint for a more socially-themed programme for a Conservative government. The big society was supposed to encourage a greater sense of social community and cooperation by getting people to work at a grassroots level in their communities.
Yet Cameron’s words proved more challenging to practically implement, not least because he found himself in coalition rather than governing alone when he did eventually enter Downing Street. Some have claimed his social narrative “did not play well on the doorstep” and actually cost the party votes at the 2010 election.
And while the big society and its more explicit social focus gained a degree of interest and momentum during Cameron’s first term in office, various critics dismissed it as being hazy and vacuous. It was also gravely undermined by the austerity programme implemented by Cameron’s government and a consequent lack of financial support. Others claimed the government was abandoning some of its responsibilities by outsourcing services.
So while the Cameron era certainly sought a much clearer and more positive focus on “society” compared to the Thatcher years, it ultimately failed to deliver on various policy levels, and the big society had largely fizzled out by 2015.
Theresa May gets sidetracked by Brexit
Cameron had nevertheless revived the “society” issue to a considerable degree. His successor Theresa May developed this social narrative further. Although often distracted by the overwhelming task of Brexit, May initiated her own social agenda in early 2017 when she spoke of her desire for a “shared society”.
May’s focus was on vulnerable members of society who could not support themselves, and who specifically required assistance from a more interventionist state. This seemed to be a significant departure from Thatcher’s prescription for the country during the 1980s, where she pledged to “roll back the frontiers” of the state. Yet May delivered little on this front in practical terms, arguably distracted by Brexit, electoral failure and internal party divisions.
The fear for some Conservatives in the Thatcher tradition is that a renewed focus on society and the state undermines the workings of their much cherished free market. This is particularly the case for those Conservative MPs who saw Brexit as a means of delivering a smaller state, and which is now at risk, given the major state interventions currently underway to fight the coronavirus.
The coronavairus outbreak is a challenge to government and wider society on such an epic scale that it, in itself, diminishes Thatcher’s comments of the 1980s. Johnson is broadly viewed as an admirer of Thatcher but has also espoused paternalistic “One Nation” tendencies. He now has the chance to decisively remould and reformulate the Conservatives’ attitude towards “society”. He advocated a more social and interventionist policy agenda in the 2019 election and now seems to be recognising that this crisis is a moment to formally discard one of Thatcher’s most negative legacies from his party’s image. This will certainly represent an outcome way beyond what recent Conservative leaders have tried (and failed) to do in the social policy sphere.
Whether this crisis and its aftermath means Johnson pursues a more socially-themed and inclusive approach in the longer term remains to be seen, but his recent rhetoric suggests that is very likely. That could radically change the nature of both the Conservative party and the UK’s broader party political landscape for many years to come.