Around 25 years ago, the then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said,
"There is no such thing as society."
Clarifying her view, she went on to say,
"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."
Women's Own magazine, October 31 1987
In an apparent contradiction of this position, her latest successor David Cameron has put what he calls "the Big Society" at the centre of his party’s political philosophy. However, according to the Conservative Party website, its aim is to help people,
"To come together to improve their own lives. The Big Society is about putting more power in people's hands - a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities. We want to see people encouraged and enabled to play a more active role in society."
In ideological terms, then, there appears to be little difference between the two positions as regards the sought-after action ‘on the ground’. In Lady Thatcher’s terms, though, this represents a denial of the very idea of society and a belief in the sovereignty of individuals. Whereas today’s Prime Minister sees it as the essence of society in action. So which of them is right?
The focus of informal coalitions is on the underlying dynamics of human interaction, rather than on the ideological stance that such interactions might reflect. And, viewed from this perspective, they are both right. And both wrong.
The critical dynamic underpinning both of these statements is one of inter-action. We exist solely in relationship with other people. We are all both enabled and constrained by each other. We are unavoidably inter-dependent. And it is through the widespread interplay of people’s ongoing interactions that patterns emerge which we come to think of as "society".
Moving on to the "Big Society", Cameron’s emphasis on helping people to "come together to improve their own lives" appears to sit four-square with this relational view of human dynamics. However, in the latter case, the phrase "coming together" applies in a much wider sense than that envisaged in the above description of the Big Society:
- To begin with, from an informal coalitions perspective, everything that happens does so solely through the "coming together" of people.
- Secondly, this dynamic applies just as much to those actions and outcomes that run counter to ‘the greater good’ as it does to those with a more altruistic intent.
- Thirdly, the phrase "coming together" is not solely an expression of people’s physical presence. It also recognizes the fact that what appear to be the solo actions of individuals always take account of their imaginative constructions of the thoughts and actions of others – whether consciously or unconsciously.
- Fourthly, there is also a generalized tendency for people to think and act in certain ways rather than others, which has itself emerged through the self-organizing, patterning process of sense-making interactions between people.
So these (essentially conversational) dynamics are constantly in play. And they don’t depend on the deliberate action of government ministers (or any other group) to make them happen. The conversations are self-organizing and whatever emerges from them emerges.
This is a social (i.e. relational) process of continuous interaction between people. And, as regards the original proposition, it does not depend on there being a separate entity (or so-called "society") that exists in any way ‘outside of’ these interactions.