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You're not being strangled....
... it's just "the squeeze".
Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” line was part of a frustrated answer she gave Douglas Keay in a 1987 Woman’s Own interview. Asked by Keay about greed and whether her government’s policies had led to more of it, she railed:
… 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.
She said the most famous formulation (“There is no such thing as society.”) later in the same answer. The following year, The Sunday Times asked for a further explanation of the remark and received a statement that was published in its Atticus column:
All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. She prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.
Boris Johnson had pundits all aflutter in 2020 when he pointedly remarked in a video that “there really is such a thing as society”, but the Thatcherite belief that everything can be boiled down to personal responsibility is more pervasive in Britain than Dutch Elm Disease or lead poisoning in the brains of right-wing columnists.
It’s evident in the way that papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail talk of “the crunch” or “the squeeze”, lunging for terms that are even more euphemistic than “the cost of living crisis”. It’s a rebranding of systematic failures as something that you can fix yourself if you know enough tricks. It implies that society has cheat codes that everyone can access rather than just those with enough money and power.
On the day that the Chief Executive of Ofgem told MPs that the energy price cap is expected to rise by more than £800 in October to £2,800, The Daily Mail published the latest in a series from (it says here) “money-saving guru” Jasmine Birtles. Tips included:
If you live in or near commerical art galleries get on their invation list for exhibition previews. They usually have free drinks and nibbles at these so you can enjoy some art and have your ‘dinner’ free!
… forage for free food. Wild garlic, some seaweed and more are there for the picking.
Haggle! You never know what you may get for free.
It’s financial struggle reduced to a game without any reference to the time, energy, and luck required to make most of the ‘tips’ workable. I’ll make sure to haggle hard with the automated checkout at Tesco Express the next time I’m in there.
In an earlier instalment, Birtles even offered the “wear an extra jumper” tip:
Keep heat in by hanging curtains over doors and stop draughts with rolled-up towels. On chilly evening, have a jumper and blankets handy while watching TV rather than switching the heating on, or just bring your duvet downstairs. It’s a cheaper way to stay warm.
It’s Viz’s Top Tips feature (“Prolong the life of leather underpants by spraying them with ‘Scotch Guard’ before use.”) but presented with the expectation that you’re really too stupid to have thought of these game changing ‘hacks’ yourself.
Today, Birtles is back in the Mail with “20 easy ways to earn a little extra income”, seven of which rely on your having your own home, garden or garage to rent out. She also suggests buying a particular £38 gin because you can then flog the empty bottle for as much as £12 on eBay. These are not serious suggestions.
In case it seems like I’m only attacking the Mail consider one of the tips from The Sun’s Squeeze Team published earlier this week:
Don’t forget to try haggling on the cost of your rent with your landlord or management company… the best time to do this is when they notify you of any planned rent increase.
Landlords are, of course, notoriously reasonable, which is why the internet is littered with those “landlords hate this one simple trick” adverts.
It’s not something money management can fix, it’s not something that for those on the lowest incomes telling them to cut their belts will work, we need political intervention.
But for newspapers, tips and tricks, no matter how patronising or disconnected from reality, are cheap content and fill a lot of space; they’re the 15p porridge of financial journalism. They offer the illusion of help without any inconvenient questions about how the politicians those same papers backed so enthusiastically are willing to let people suffer.
Listen carefully and in the cacophony of the Squeeze Team and other money-saving gurus, you can hear Thatcher’s whisper. How dare you expect the government to help you when there are car boots sales you can loiter at, art exhibitions to feed you, and traders to be haggled with?
After all, if you’re not rich enough for a tax break, you certainly don’t deserve a ‘handout’…