Margaret Thatcher, Conservative prime minister from 1979–90, famously said in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine in 1987, ‘There is no such thing as society. 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 first.’ This shows the clear divisions among conservatives over the nature and function of society. Many on the neo-liberal side of the New Right adopt a view of society that is more in tune with the atomistic view of classical liberals with their emphasis on self-reliance and a state that intervenes as little as possible. More traditional conservatives would adopt an essentially paternalist notion of society. For them, society is not something to be opted in or out of like a business contract but rather an organic and living entity where all individuals are naturally bound together by common ties (for example to the nation) and mutual obligation. Society is like a family and has come about not as a result of manmade philosophies or ideas but as a result of natural forces. To significantly reform or abolish the institutions in society is to risk immeasurable damage. A high premium is also placed on tradition and continuity — like any delicate plant, society needs gentle pruning, not uprooting.

Traditional conservatives also see society as underpinning traditional moral values such as marriage and respect for religious beliefs. Shared values are core values and help bind together society and therefore the nation. In more recent times, this ‘one- nation’ conservatism has found itself articulated in slogans such as David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Theresa May’s ‘Shared Society’.