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.