Oliver Sacks once remembered following one of his Tourette’s patients through the street. Some Tourette’s people engage in involuntary mimicry; this woman was trying to restrain herself from doing so. After managing to control her composure the length of a street, she turned into an alleyway and there, said Sacks, essentially decomposed, mimicking at high-speed everyone she’d passed in the past ten minutes.
That is Britain now, a week after the death of Margaret Thatcher, three days before her funeral. There’s nothing rational about the death of someone being the moment for discussing a whole era – indeed it can be absolutely distorting (obscuring in this case, the degree to which Thatcher was the front-person for a phalanx of interconnected ideological-interest forces). But there’s no way out of it. The whole culture is replaying thirty years worth of battles over ten days. One of the most significant has been her remark, in an interview in Women’s Own magazine, that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Barely noticed at first, it became her most celebrated quote in the late 1980s and 1990s – especially as the early ‘growth’ from her policies evaporated by the late 80s, leaving a fractured, rusted and seething society. By the mid-90s, it was all anybody remembered about her, and the Tory party spent a decade trying to erase her memory from their image. In the days after her death, some Tories tried to pretend that she had never said it – until BBC Radio 4’s Today program found the quote, and the journalist who did the interview. They were so desperate to dispel this notion, because they were venerating Thatcher out of current weakness, not past strength. After all, the observation is nothing other than straight English empiricist classical liberalism – the argument that ‘society’ is an abstraction, and attributing characteristics to it a form of intellectual error. That’s clearer still when you consider the full quote: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families.’ Classical liberals like Hayek always argued that the one ‘real’ social form was the family, grounded in natural connection (or an imitation thereof), an atavistic form of attachment. It is this exception to individualism that forms a basis to the mix of economic liberalism and social conservatism at the heart of the Thatcherite formula.
So we had always assumed that such a remark reflected the very real influence that Hayek had had over Thatcher from the 1940s, when she read The Road To Serfdom, onwards, and particularly in the early 1970s. Now, Radio 4’s Today has thrown a loop in that, finding another source for her belief in that: Richard Dawkins.
Yesterday, Today heard from a zoologist who, as a young graduate, had attended a High Table college dinner in Oxford at which Thatcher – and Dawkins and a whole bevy of zoologists and biologists – were also present. Thatcher, according to this source, was pontificating somewhat and said ‘society is the future’ (!). Wrong audience. By the late 1970s, Dawkins had published The Selfish Gene and EO Wilson Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Both drew on the work of WD Hamilton, the mathematician/biologist who had reconstructed the idea of natural selection using probabilities. Hamilton argued that neither the species nor the even the individual animal could be seen as the unit of natural selection. It was the gene that persevered by advantageous selection, and individual animals would thus sacrifice themselves for offspring and some siblings (half their genes) nephew/nieces and cousins in diminishing proportion. Leaving aside the essential intellectual error of applying this simplistically to enculturated human beings, it has been challenged in biology as well, most famously by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould (and recently by EO Wilson himself, now in his 90s). In the late 1970s, the theory had caught on in biology and zoology like wildfire. Indeed, some scientists were waving it as a flag against the humanities – it was an era when Wilson’s speeches (and those of the now-largely-discredited psychologist Hans Eysenck) were regularly disrupted by protests. The scientists present led by Dawkins, assailed Thatcher with the ‘anti-society’ argument, and the rest, so we are to believe, was our history.
How much truth can we credit to this story? Thatcher, despite the legend, was a slow and gradual convert to hardcore Hayekianism. Her mentions of The Road to Serfdom can be misleading – everyone was reading it in the 40s, after a cheap abridged edition was released by conservative groups. But throughout the 50s and 60s, and in much of her work as a junior pensions and then education minister and shadow, she toed a conventional right social democratic line of the time. Under the tutelage of Keith Joseph and former Stalinist, Spanish Civil War veteran Arthur Sherman, she became more classical liberal in the early 70s, and was a cofounder of the Centre of Policy Studies with Keith Joseph (the MP who many had assumed would be the standard-bearer of the New Right within the Tory Party). But sociobiology of a type tangled up Joseph too – after a speech in which he mused that the poor should be dissuaded from having children (in language that would be seen as leftishly coy today), he was denounced from all sides, and Thatcher emerged as their leadership candidate. She once famously slammed Hayek’s massive Constitution of Liberty on a tables saying ‘this is what we believe!’ Whether she had ever made it through its complex epistemological argument is far from certain.
Lending credence to the recent story is that Thatcher was a scientist by profession and also, by inclination, seeing it as a hard and real form of knowledge. Discussion of her scientific career has often been regrettably snobbish and sexist; she became a chemist at a time when 5 per cent of science graduates were women. Many of them were in chemistry, because it was seen as analogous to cooking, and the main jobs were in food chemistry. Thatcher famously worked on Mr Whippy ice cream. The story that she invented soft-serve ice cream is, intriguingly, typically individualist apocrypha – it took a team of scientists, of which she was one, to accomplish the minor task of improving the smoothness and fluidity of soft-serve. Before that work, she had done honours with Dorothy Hodgkin, the x-ray crystallographer who, over her career, unlocked the structure of penicillin and insulin, thus making vast amounts of synthetic drugs possible. Hodgkin was an active leftist, a student (and onetime lover) of the great JD Bernal, and the only British woman to win a science Nobel Prize. Thatcher’s involvement with her was one of the great pieces of good luck of her life, for she not only encountered a brilliant woman, she encountered a woman who was literally unlocking the structure of matter, someone who was intervening in the world in a way that had not been possible even a few years before. Indeed, Thatcher was close to one of the central scientific events of the twentieth century – in the early 50s Hodgkin was shown the first x-ray photos of DNA by a colleague Rosalind Franklin (who should have shared the Nobel that Crick and Watson gained for it), and gave a suggestion as to which general idea of structure would best fit the material. At this time, Thatcher was still in touch with Hodgkin (she would eventually hang a portrait of Hodgkin in Number Ten Downing Street). It seems highly unlikely to me that being close to these momentous events did not have a fundamental effect on a young Thatcher. One can’t help but wonder if her willingness to atomise British society was in part prepared for by a literal understanding of atomisation itself. And it seems more than possible that she was persuaded to a radical vision of human life, not by philosophers but by scientists, spruiking an ideology that struck them as an obvious truth. Thatcher may be dead, but we are all still twitching, and so will be for some time to come.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!