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God and Mrs Thatcher

God and Mrs Thatcher

Nick Spencer interviews Dr Eliza Filby on her recent book “God and Mrs Thatcher: The Battle for Britain’s Soul”. You can also read his book review here. 

Politicians today are chary about Doing God, but Margaret Thatcher wasn’t, was she? Was that because of who she was or when she was? 

I think in part it’s to do with when she was but also the time she was operating.  Back in the 1980s Britain was still assumed to be a Christian country. These were the days when the religious correspondent of the Times was in fact the Church of England correspondent; when the General Synod proceedings were reported verbatim in the newspapers, and when charities were fronted by churchmen, not celebrities. Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool, for example, were asked to head up the Miners Hardship Fund for the families of the miners in 1985. 

Religion was understood in the media as Anglicanism and Christianity. Within the political sphere, it was considered perfectly normal for politicians to quote extensively from the Bible. If you search the Hansard database from the 1980s, for example, you will find that biblical language was very common, as was classical language and references back then. This is no longer the case. If a politician stood up and started quoting from The Aeneid now he would be dismissed as an eccentric. Similarly, if an MP now quoted extensively from the Bible, it is quite possible that half the Commons wouldn’t know even what he/she was talking about. This reflects a decline in biblical literacy amongst the political class and British society as a whole.
In her use of the Bible, Thatcher was therefore was reflecting her time.  But the meaning behind her statements was very personal to her and that’s what I try to document in the book. When people talk about Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ and her ‘conviction’ approach to politics, the source of all this (her politics, style and convictions) was in fact religious, specifically sourced from the Methodist tutelage she received as a child from her lay–preacher father, Alf Roberts. In the book, I go through his sermons which Margaret Thatcher herself kept, and you can see there in the sermon notes of a lay preacher in interwar Grantham – ideas about the Protestant work ethic, individual liberty, thrift and restraint – the origins of what would later become known as Thatcherism.
Thatcher had a theological approach to politics and her ideas had sincere biblical foundations which stemmed back to her early days in Grantham. As Margaret Thatcher herself said: ‘Economics is the method; the object is to change the soul’.

Did other people quote the Bible as much? I get the impression that even for her time she was at the more explicit end of the spectrum. 

Well it depends who you compare her to. In the 1980s the Labour party was going through a secular phrase, headed by two non–believer Michael Foot and subsequently Neil Kinnock, so compared to the left, Thatcher was very religious. But if you compare Thatcher to other Christian conservatives – Enoch Powell for example – she was not.

But in some respects I think you are right.  Thatcher started using the Bible precisely when it began to go out of fashion. The ‘80s was a crucial moment in the religious history of Britain in that it was the decade when Britain made the transition from a Protestant nation to a multi–faith, secular, plural society. Thatcher is the last politician, certainly the last Prime Minister, who was able to speak so explicitly about her faith and how it legitimised her political philosophy.
Tony Blair was famously advised not to ‘do God’. Certainly his aides were aware that it was inappropriate for him, (even though he was a sincere and fervent Christian), to harp on about his religion. What Alistair Campbell meant by ‘we don’t do God’ is that ‘we don’t want to offend or alienate secular liberals or non–Christians’. By the 1990s, the Labour party were more concerned not to offend the secular liberal left than to provide some sort of Christian basis for its politics. Thatcher on the other hand had no such concerns or sensibilities. 

Of course, the picture is muddied now by ‘religion’ as opposed to ‘Christianity’. I think many more people are offended by ‘religion’ per se. 

Yes, I agree. I think we’ve got a scenario now where there is declining religious literacy and confusion about faith and religion. This has been partly caused by the increasing prominence of what I would term fringe fundamentalism (of variant types Christianity, Islam, and Atheism); all of which have given religion a bad name. The secular media has fed the flames by giving these fringes the oxygen of publicity rather than providing a balanced representation of religion in all its varying shades. 

Going back to Margaret Thatcher’s beginnings: How much of her Grantham upbringing in mythologised? You give over a good 50 pages of your book to exploring what her childhood was like, and she, of course, kept on returning to it in her own speeches, but I was struck by the fact that she left more or less as soon as she could, never really went back much and, I think I’m right in saying, didn’t talk about its formative effect that much until she became Leader of the Opposition.

It’s mythologised, it’s deliberate, it’s self–conscious, but it’s not entirely self–constructed. Margaret Thatcher, as I document in the book, only began to reference her father, her upbringing in Grantham and her Methodism when she bid for the leadership in 1975. It was politically motivated in that she deliberately drew upon quaint tales of Grantham (of living above the shop, of Grantham’s charities and philanthropists, of her family’s hard work) as a way of connecting with disaffected Conservative grassroots who were then disenchanted with the direction of the party under Edward Heath. The Conservatives had just suffered two election defeats, its worst result since the 1920s and were frustrated by Heath’s failure to quash the unions and control inflation. All Thatcher’s parables of working in the grocers shop and of the values of thrift, the Protestant work ethic and God–given liberty seemed the perfect antidote to a nation in crisis. It resonated with the Conservative party in 1975 and later in 1979, with the nation at large.

But they were her values before then, weren’t they?

Yes, they were. And it is important to remember that Thatcher’s upbringing had instilled a class and religious identity that was merely to be reawakened in the mid–1970s. As Alfred Sherman later said: ‘Grantham was embodied in her, waiting to emerge.’
This is also important in terms of her religiosity. Thatcher was a cradle Christian who maintained a strong Christian faith throughout her life. More importantly however, there was always a strong correlation between her religious beliefs, her class–consciousness, and her political convictions. Faith, politics and class were back then, (not just for Thatcher but for the whole of British society) an intertwining set of allegiances. It is therefore important that Thatcher was the daughter of a Nonconformist Liberal lay preacher; it is important that she was a Wesleyan Methodist and not a Primitive Methodist; it is significant that her father was a lower middle class grocer rather than a professional and feared the rise of the Co–op and the Labour party as a threat to his livelihood.  When people said to me, (as many of her former ministers did when interviewed), that Thatcher never talked about religion or her private faith; it is in many ways irrelevant. It points to our own secularism and lack of understanding about how religiosity and faith once worked in Britain.

It is clear from what you say that Thatcher was genuinely and sincerely Christian, not simply in her ethical stance, but in religious observation and even in reading the Bible and, occasionally it seems, theology too. But I wonder whether she ever learnt anything from it, by which I mean, she seems to me to be someone whose beliefs, outlook and values were firmly set at an early age, and thereafter simply confirmed by what she read. I supposed that happens to all of us as we get older, but more so with her? Did she ever change her mind, and in particular, she her Christianity ever change her mind?

There’s clear evidence that she had a very intense early religious instruction from her father, and her faith wasn’t challenged by any of the intellectual temptations at Oxford University. Methodism acts as an anchor when she first arrives at university – she joins the local chapel and in fact becomes preacher on the local circuit. It is in fact important to remember that Thatcher was a preacher before she was a politician.
By the time that she leaves Oxford however, she has transferred this missionary energy from religion to politics.
What is interesting about her intellectual journey is that throughout much of the 1950s/60s when she first arrives in Parliament is that she’s very much a ‘wet’ Conservative, in the Macmillan consensus politics camp. Interestingly, it is at this time that she becomes an Anglican. If you read some of her speeches from these years, she almost sounds like William Temple, heralding the spiritual nourishment of the welfare state.
1968 proves to be a turning point for her. At the Conservative party conference that year, she gives an important speech ‘What’s Wrong with Politics’, and I’d argue that that’s when Thatcher becomes ‘Thatcher’; it is when she utters the immortal line “the Good Samaritan could only have helped because he had money’. In preparation for the speech she had devoured the works of Karl Popper, Hayek and other right–wing thinkers, but it was to her Bible she looked to for legitimacy and as a way of popularising these ideas. 

When Thatcher assumed office, she gave two important speeches on the harmony between Biblical principles and the principles of the New Right. They were written for her of course, but you can see from her interventions in the drafting process, that she believed every word she eventually said. The political aim of these speeches of course, was to challenge the assumed link between socialism and virtue. It perhaps does not need adding here that the Church of England did not agree.
What does become increasingly important to her is the Jewish faith, partly because she was influenced by the spiritual champion of Thatcherism, the chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jacobovitz who publicly defends the government and attacks the Church of England for its out–dated and misguided compassionate belief in welfarism. Her understanding of Judaism is that it’s a religion of responsibility, community, work ethic – all the things that she understands Christianity to be – and so if there is an add–on in her thought, it’s that she starts talking about ‘Judeo–Christian values’.
Also important in this is evangelical capitalist Brian Griffiths who acts as head of her policy unit from 1986. Thatcher was particularly impressed with some lectures he had given on the morality of capitalism in the early eighties – he seemed to be saying what she wished the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie wasnt – that creating wealth was a moral endeavour and nothing to do with greed. She appointed Griffiths as her advisor in 1986 and he ended up drafting her infamous speech to the Church of Scotland in 1988, in which she crudely quoted St Paul ‘If man shall not work, he shall not eat’ as the biblical justification for enterprise culture.

Does she take on board any criticisms?

In 1988 Thatcher wrote in a letter to William Waldergrave: “the Church keeps complaining that we’re making everyone poor, and when we’re making everyone rich they complain that we’re making everyone materialistic”.  She didn’t like criticism from the Church; she was uncomfortable with it. She tried hard to convince them that her politics stemmed from sincere Christian beliefs even inviting a selection of Anglican bishops to Chequers. It was not a harmonious occasion, Thatcher proceeded to lecture them on the meaning of Christianity – that it was about freedom rather than love – which didn’t go down too well with the bishops.

For all she was a Christian Conservative, Thatcher wasn’t much of a conservative Christian, was she? By that I mean, while she was very happy to play friend to Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, she was never really ‘one of them’. Her voting record on issues of personal morality was hardly different from the kind of liberal or left wing parliamentarians she often tried to distinguish herself from.

Mrs Thatcher in the first instance was never moralistic in her faith or her politics. The Conservatives cosied up to Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA in the ‘70s when it suited them, but once in power, relations cooled. After initially enthusiastic and hopeful, Mary Whitehouse would be very disappointed with the legislation that went through under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Thatcher was also a disappointment to the anti–abortion lobby, and all those fighting against ‘the permissive age’.
The Conservative government rather than halting or reversing permissiveness actually accelerated it. The relaxed the divorce laws, legalised homosexuality in Scotland and did very little to reverse the all of the so–called ‘permissive’ legislation from the 1960s.
For example, the most liberal and effective response to the AIDs panic came from Britain. Margaret Thatcher may not have had much to do with the government AIDS campaign (it was the one thing she delegated) but her government’s liberal response is an important indication that Thatcher was not the moral authoritarian that the left thought she was.
In truth, Thatcher thought that sexual morality really didn’t have a place in parliament, and, like constitutional change, was a political minefield best avoided. It was a distraction from the main event, which was the economy.

The conclusion of your book fascinated me. I loved the Frank Field quote (Field once asked her of about her greatest regret in office, to which she replied “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society and we haven’t”) and I was struck by your statement that she was uncomfortable with many of the visible excesses of capitalism and in private reportedly raged against excesses of bankers. How far do you think Thatcher disliked Thatcherism (or at least the cultural idea of what Thatcherism stood for?)

I don’t think Thatcher was one for a great deal of self–reflection or regret, but when I interviewed Frank Field I was struck by what he said; the fact that her biggest regret was that she thought she had created a giving society but that she had not. This was confirmed when I talked to Harvey Thomas (an evangelical Conservative, who had formerly worked for evangelist Billy Graham and later became the Tories’ PR man). Thomas confirmed that Thatcher wasn’t comfortable nor could she understand the culture that she created. In a sense, Peregrine Worsthorne put it correctly: ‘Thatcher came into Downing Street to recreate the values of her father and ended up creating the world of her son.’
Thatcher was a woman of principle, and when your principles don’t bear fruit, do you blame the principles or how they have been applied? My own view is that there was a fundamental flaw in Thatcher’s theology.  It is not that Mrs Thatcher did not believe in society (as the bishops’ criticised) but that she had too much faith in man. She put too much faith in the individual. She had forgotten the doctrine of original sin. When you are offered a mortgage that is five times the price you can afford, but you are also offered the house you’ve always dreamed of, man, being the sinful creature he is, takes it. And yes, Thatcherism is about the individual, but it’s also strangely at odds with conservative philosophy, which is rooted in the Fall. It is only in her positive view of man, do you realise that Thatcher was a Liberal rather than a Conservative. 

Thatcher as a Victorian liberal makes much more sense than Thatcher as a conservative, but there were things in her economic policy that would have horrified Victorian liberalism, particularly the Shops Act (deregulation of Sunday trading), and the successful deregulation of credit. I can imagine her forebears spinning in their graves. Was this driven by her anti–establishment sense? For example, with the deregulation of credit, it irked her that if you were rich enough, credit would never be a problem for you, but for the vast majority of people it wasn’t.

The Shops Act proposed in 1986 aimed at deregulating Sunday trading is a particularly illuminating example of her going against her Nonconformist roots. It upset many Conservatives as well as trade unions and church leaders and indeed this coalition ensured that the bill was eventually defeated. One Labour MP teasingly accused her in the Commons of going against her own father’s memory.  Thatcher was uncomfortable with such an accusation. When the Shops Act was defeated, she wisely abandoned it and never returned to it, and it was left to John Major to push it through under very tight regulations. I think that the Shops Act was a moment when Thatcher said to herself ‘hang on a minute – what am I about?…Do I believe completely in the deregulation of the market or the preservation of the social fabric of society? It was also an important moment when the debate about the economy changed from being about unemployment (which had dominated the early 1980s) to a discussion on the morality of wealth creation (which came to dominate the late 1980s). This was the time of the Big Bang, Yuppie culture and Loadsamoney. 

So that would be moment in her premiership when there was not so much a complete turn but a hand–brake turn?

Yes. And I think that’s the moment when she rediscovers her moral drive. In the next couple of years, Thatcher pushes through the 1988 Education Act which enshrines Christian education in schools, delivers her infamous speech to the Church of Scotland and she pledges her commitment to create a nation of ‘good Samaritans’ who have their own money and donate to worthwhile causes.
To put it bluntly, Thatcher does not want to be known as the woman who reinvents shopping.

Which is a bit ironic, really?

Yes, because that’s basically what the extension of credit means in the 1980s.  This is where Thatcher the woman differs from Thatcherism. Thatcher herself was always incredibly sensible with money and maintained her mother’s standards on thrift and waste. Even when she married the millionaire Denis, she recycled her wedding dress into a ball gown; remade curtains into coats for the twins. When it came to the ethic of thrift, Thatcher really did practise what she preached.
One need only compare her lifestyle and approach to money when she left office with Tony Blair’s. Thatcher ironically, was not a woman in pursuit of wealth nor a woman of excess or greed. She maintained the standards of her parents when it came to thrift, which meant that she could not understand why the extension of credit caused such irresponsible behaviour in people. She could not understand why people struggled with debt or ended up bankrupt. She believed that democratising credit (or debt) would mean greater opportunity for all – it did – but it also led to extreme fiscal irresponsibility and to the worrying situation we have now which is that Britain has the largest levels of personal debt in the developed world.

I suppose, as you do intimate in the book, because she lived her entire life in the shadow of the Cold War, a little debt at home didn’t seem like such a great crisis. It’s only 30 years on when we’re no longer living in the shadow of communism but we are living in the shadow of debt that it becomes a much bigger issue.

But I think where critics go wrong with Thatcher is they assume there was no moral underpinning, and absolutely there was. She would always maintain the moral superiority of her values and politics over practically everyone and anything else. But where her admirers go wrong is that they do not admit that there was a clear discrepancy between her aims and the actual outcomes.

Let’s bring Margaret Thatcher up to date: she was undoubtedly a conviction politician with vision. Do you think Britain could produce (and cope with!) a politician like Thatcher again, specifically one with her explicitly religious conviction and vision? Pundits are so often saying we need someone with conviction, rather than our more managerial politicians, but I doubt whether the more uncertain and plural culture of today could really cope with one. Do we really want another Thatcher?

What you see with Thatcher is someone who came from a very strict religious household and went into politics. I see her conviction politics as a product and legacy of Britain’s dying Nonconformist heritage. There were other politicians of her generation who had a religious background; Arthur Scargill, for example who had a communist father and a primitive Methodist mother. Religion has always been a solid training ground for politics. But with a declining religious culture, is that link broken? We could once again have conviction politician with a religious background but it is unlikely that they would be a Nonconformist they may not even be a Christian.

But what’s the cause of that? The political landscape 30 years ago was a rougher, tougher, more divided place. Now we have lots of people huddling round the centre, twiddling technocratic knobs. The population say ‘give us something to believe in’, but we seem very happy with this soggy middle.

The role of non–conformists in British society, from the time Margaret Thatcher was growing up, and when Arthur Scargill was growing up, has gone. We don’t have a Donald Soper. We don’t have those towering preachers. Perhaps it still exists in Northern Ireland, but we don’t have that religious culture filtering into our political culture like it continues to do in America. Where we do see that is in the evangelical black churches and some Muslim communities. That’s where you might get that connection between religion and politics – and it is one that Britain’s liberal electorate do not particularly favour.
The broader question is: do the British yearn for conviction politics? In the 1980s you did not have a neutral stance on politics, you had an opinion. There was so much drama, so much upheaval in the 80s, and yet there was something innately ‘unBritish’ about those extremes – on both the left and the right. IN the aftermath of Mrs Thatcher, I think the British people yearned for calm – a sort of soggy centrism, a ‘non–politics’. It’s only recently, in the last five years, that there has been some resurging in interest in politics particularly amongst the young who are asking bigger questions about its nature and place in society, and the failure of the political class to come up with some solid answers.

That’s part of the problem, isn’t it…that scepticism is blanket now? We can’t identify particular problems like ‘socialism’ or ‘commmunism’ or ‘Thatcherite conservatism’. You can turn to virtually every single institution and sector of British society and find elements of corruption.

The key question now I think is whether we are yearning for someone to take a lead, or whether people taking are taking a much more independent view of citizenship and asking much more of themselves? The forces of consumerism, globalisation and technology have ensured that people see politics within a much broader context than just debates within the Commons chamber. The world is much smaller and the issues seem much bigger and unsolvable within a purely domestic context. I think the most worrying thing is how the next generation have greater faith in their role as consumers than as voters, indeed they demonstrate a greater affinity and loyalty to their mobile phone tariff than to a political party. That, we may conclude, is the true legacy of Thatcherism.

Dr Eliza Filby is a Visting Research Fellow in Modern British History at King’s College London. Her book ‘God and Mrs Thatcher: The Battle for Britain’s Soul’ is published by Biteback Publishing. 

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Image by University of Salford Press Office from Wikimediaavailable in the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 22 July 2015


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