Is society coming apart? | Jill Lepore

Despite Thatcher and Reagan’s best efforts, there is and has always been such a thing as society. The question is not whether it exists, but what shape it must take in a post-pandemic world

In March 2020, Boris Johnson, pale and exhausted, self-isolating in his flat on Downing Street, released a video of himself – that he had taken himself – reassuring Britons that they would get through the pandemic, together. “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society,” the prime minister announced, confirming the existence of society while talking to his phone, alone in a room.

All this was very odd. Johnson seemed at once frantic and weak (not long afterwards, he was admitted to hospital and put in the intensive care unit). Had he, in his feverishness, undergone a political conversion? Because, by announcing the existence of society, Johnson appeared to renounce, publicly, something Margaret Thatcher had said in an interview in 1987, in remarks that are often taken as a definition of modern conservatism. “Too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’” Thatcher said. “They are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing!” She, however, had not contracted Covid-19.

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