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1970 Apr 9 Th
Margaret Thatcher

Radio Interview for BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour ("Permissive or Civilised?")

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Radio Interview
Venue: BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, central London
Source: BBC Written Archives: transcript
Journalist: Joan Yorke, BBC, chairing
Editorial comments: For copyright reasons, material by BBC journalists has been summarised. MT joined Paul Johnson in a studio discussion under the title "Permissive or Civilised?"
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2323 words
Themes: Arts & entertainment, Family, Law & order, Media, Northern Ireland, Religion & morality, Society, Women

Anderson

[Summary of question] Britain now a Permissive Society, everyone says not always meaning to be complimentary. Could it be that a more civilised society? We asked Margaret Thatcher, M.P. and Paul Johnson, Editor of the ‘New Statesman’, to discuss this with Joan Yorke.

Yorke

[Summary of question] Is the Permissive Society a civilised society? Why has the word “permissive” a derogatory meaning?

Thatcher

Well, I—I think it has a derogatory meaning. I think perhaps its deeper meaning seems to imply to most of us that a certain amount of self-discipline has broken down, that things have gone beyond the usual moderation and that the Permissive Society seems to some extent to be undermining family life and the family as a unit of society. And if we do that, it's very difficult to see what one puts in its place.

Johnson

I think in a curious way that this has been a great row about nothing. After all, if you look at the past five years, what has gone through Parliament are in fact four major Acts, and I think it's in referring to those that people mainly talk about the Permissive Society. One is to—the Homosexuals' Act, the other the Anti-Hanging Act, the Divorce Act and the Abortion Law Reform Act. Well, I would have thought that in three out of four of those cases, that is excluding hanging, public opinion either was or has since come round to the view that these Acts were just. It's perfectly true that on hanging public opinion is still overwhelmingly against what Parliament did, but on the other three I should have thought that public opinion now thought that—now thinks that Parliament gave a lead and did the right thing. I don't know whether Mrs. Thatcher would agree.

Thatcher

I don't necessarily agree with Mr. Johnson 's interpretation of the Permissive Society. Hanging I would have put more in with law and order and the deterrent effect of certain sentences or not. Homosexual offences and abortion, of course, are part of the Permissive Society, but only a very small part. I think what the average woman would really mean by it is rather more—a good deal more sexual licence now, fear of one's children going on drugs. Often how exactly does one guide one's teenage son and daughter as to how they should behave in this kind of society? How when it comes along to your argument with regard to abortion, for example, I do think that this happens to be not the cause of the phrase Permissive Society at all, it is just perhaps one—a single one of its features. I myself voted for the Abortion Act because I happen to think that one of the worst things anyone can do in this world is to bring an unwanted child into it. It starts with such a tremendous handicap.

Johnson

I think perhaps the biggest single element in the Permissive Society, and I'm guessing of course—is the widespread use of the Pill. I think this has made a big difference, because I think until then the pattern of people's sexual lives hadn't changed all that much, but I think with the widespread use of [end p1] the Pill I think there is more sex outside marriage, as it were. But the interesting thing is that we call this a Permissive Society but it isn't all that permissive, because a Private Member's Bill was passed making it possible for local authorities to spend money on birth control advice centres, and only a tiny number of them have in fact done so. It isn't all that much of a permissive society yet, although they're empowered under the Bill to do it, most of them refuse to do so.

Yorke

[Summary of question] This is a Permissive Society more for women, since it always has been permissive for men in that field?

Thatcher

Yes.

Yorke

[Summary of question] The Pill has made it possible for women.

Thatcher

Yes, I think what Mr. Johnson 's argument is leading to is that it is now possible for you to do whatever you wish and to escape consequences which you previously couldn't escape. The chances that you'll have an illegitimate child are one that you can escape if you take the necessary precautions. I think that's all his argument is, but that—even still doesn't entirely accord with what—what is my idea of the Permissive Society, because you can still have the Pill and not have people using it or wanting to use it, or wanting to go around sexually as much as they are doing at the moment. And the other aspect of it is the pornographic aspect, which is nothing to do with the Pill at all, and the amount of pornography now and the extent of licence in some of the literature, I think, is frightening. It is, of course, extremely difficult to find an objective law about what is obscene or not, but many of us as parents are really quite worried about the thought of literature, either that comes through the letterbox or which you do see on the newspaper stalls, and this is also a very powerful aspect of the Permissive Society.

Johnson

Yes, I'm not quite sure how I stand on this particular issue, except for one point that, you see, if—if you don't agree with things as they are, the literature available to the public and so on, you then have to impose some form of censorship and that's where the difficulties begin. I think we got rid of theatre censorship, primarily because it was becoming absolutely impossible, it was difficult to get anyone who was in fact prepared to do it properly. The thing virtually collapsed of its own accord and equally we still have film censorship, but there again they are gradually pushing the frontiers further away from what was once thought to be completely intolerable, and they are finding it very difficult to operate that too. Now so far as literary censorship is concerned, you just have the law and there again you get involved in the most frightful anomalies. I mean some of the police prosecutions which take place, and a great many still do, particularly in the provinces, are really quite absurd. I—I agree that it's wrong to expose children, for instance, to pornography, but I don't quite see how you can work out a viable alternative system. I mean if—if you, Margaret Thatcher, can propose to me a system which I think can work in practice, I'd be happy to consider it, but I suspect that you won't be able to.

Thatcher

Well, I know it's very difficult because some of the tests must necessarily be subjective. What does the person who's considering it think it represents, is it obscene in his view? But there has been a movement, as you know, to alter the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, indeed to abandon it altogether. Now I would be very much against that because I think it would be one further step towards a Permissive Society and I myself fail to see anything civilised about allowing, say, the sexual act to be shown on the stage in a theatre. Well now, the law is very soon going to come under test in this country as to whether that's going to be permitted. [end p2]

Yorke

[Summary of question] Shouldn't individuals decide for themselves? Isn't this the point of the Permissive Society?

Johnson

I would entirely agree with that. You see, I have a feeling that all this fuss about Permissive Society and law and order and so on, really underestimates the good sense of British people. I think we're moving through a period in which a lot of experiments are taking place, that gradually it will all settle down. In fact this is a very peaceful country, it's a very sensible country, we nearly always reach the proper kind of compromise in the end and I suspect this is precisely what will happen over this whole field, and I don't think we ought to get too hot under the collar about it.

Thatcher

Well now, I wouldn't entirely take that view as a legislator, because I think as a legislator, you have to legislate to try to retain the good standards and the best things in your society. Now, if everyone had a very strongly religious view and acted in accordance with all the best principles, you would not in fact need to have so much legislation about these things as you have, but they don't and that isn't life and you know full well that it isn't.

Johnson

…   . if everyone acted in accordance with strict religious principles, you end up with Northern Ireland, God spare us from that …   .

Thatcher

No, no, no, that is not an example of acting in strict acco—accord with religious principles, but, as you know, it seems to be acting contrary to them.

Johnson

I susp—I mean, what you're saying, Margaret, in fact is—is we've got to put in some kind of substitute for religion, and I'm not sure that I would agree entirely with that, though I think there's some truth in it. I think what we've got to do is to educate people much more thoroughly and much more effectively than we do at the moment. I think—I think you can have a Permissive Society, you can have a civilised society which will work and will be effective and healthy, provided the people who inhabit it and make it up are themselves well educated. I think …   .

Thatcher

Yes, I think what you're saying is that you can have a Permissive Society in the legislative sense without laws stopping things, provided people reject certain courses of action out of choice. Well now, if the whole pattern of life shows that a large number of them don't reject it, am I as a Parliamentarian just to say “Oh well, let's be careless of the consequences,” and not legislate, knowing full well that at this point of time young people have more freedom then they've ever had before, but often that freedom comes at a time when they haven't yet developed the responsibility to choose properly?

Johnson

I would prefer to trust the people on the whole.

Yorke

[Summary of question] Mr. Johnson—how are we to be so well educated as to be able to …

Thatcher

Reject what he said.

Johnson

Well, for instance, I mean if you take the case of cheap pornography, it's very similar to the sort of rather crude comics which are very widely read. I found this out in the Army, that really quite a large majority of ordinary working class boys—by the time they get to eighteen or nineteen, they don't in fact read except comics or pornography of this kind. One thing I would like to see done really [end p3] thoroughly in this country is the proper teaching of English in schools. I think that could be enormously improved and I then—I don't think you would get this kind of crude pornography catching on.

Thatcher

… crude pornography—I think one must be careful. Education and intellectual ability in this are not the same, because in fact you have some of the most pornographic stuff—that I would regard as pornographic or permissive—put out by some of the most highly educated writers.

Johnson

But are you talking about pornography written by clever people or written for clever people?

Thatcher

I am talking about people very highly educated who, it seems to me, are quite prepared to put what I would regard as pornographic on the stage for public display.

Johnson

They are—they are presumably aiming for a highly sophisticated audience.

Thatcher

Ah, are they?

Johnson

Well I don't know …   . I don't know what you're talking about.

Thatcher

… are they pandering to the very worst? Are they pand—some of—some of the plays which will come to London on the stage, I have not yet seen one that's playing in New York, but you know full well that it's shortly due to come to London. I don't like it going on the stage, my postbag is already full about it.

Johnson

But then are you going to bring back theatre censorship? You see, you're left with this dilemma.

Thatcher

There will to some extent be some censorship, because it's liable to be Obscene Publications Act.

Johnson

Well, I would have thought that it's liable to the Common Law too. I mean you have got defences and if you've got public opinion behind you, you can use them. But it again comes back to the fact that you've got to trust the people I think.

Yorke

[Summary of question] Are people ready for the Permissive Society?

Johnson

I think occasionally they're not ready for it and some unfortunate chap tries to go too far and then he's liable to go to gaol in consequence and I think this will tend to go on happening, but broadly speaking I think the type of society we—we've got at the moment is underwritten by the great majority of the British people.

Thatcher

Well, I think people are asking for—Parliament for legislation to uphold standards until such time as everyone can exercise the amount of self-discipline that they reject things that you and I would reject.

Yorke

Thank you both very much.

Anderson

Discussing the subject with Joan Yorke were Margaret Thatcher, M.P., and Paul Johnson, Editor of the New Statesman.