Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

Diane L. Olinger

Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Why Shakespeare Matters

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

God and Mrs. Thatcher: The Battle for Britain’s Soul, by Eliza Filby. London: Biteback, 2015, xxiii + 432 pages, $39.95 cover price, available on Amazon.com for $24.90.

For the sake of full disclosure, you should know that my nineteen-year-old cat’s name is Thatcher. We used to have another cat. We lost her twelve years ago. Her name was Maggie. I’m not sure that Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, would’ve considered this an homage, but it was meant to be so. As a fan of the Iron Lady’s, I was pleased to find a book that promised to delve into her faith and its effect on her politics. However, God and Mrs. Thatcher does much more than that, presenting an analysis that goes beyond Mrs. Thatcher to the British nation as a whole. Margaret Thatcher was the “hinge” in the conflict between the Conservative Party and the Church of England. During the 1980s Thatcher and her followers “sought inspiration (and legitimization) from the Gospel for their political ideas and policies”; at the same time, the Established Church began to view “engagement in [increasingly liberal and socialist] politics as part of its spiritual mission” (xvii).

The author, Eliza Filby, is currently a lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London. Although God and Mrs. Thatcher is the outworking of her doctoral thesis, it avoids academic jargon and is a good read. It is well researched, with a bibliography that will be enticing to anyone with an interest in church-state issues. Even more importantly, God and Mrs. Thatcher is about as close to an objective analysis as one can find these days, with Filby acknowledging Thatcher’s achievements (or at least her good intentions) as well as her failures. Filby writes to counter what she sees as a weakness in most analyses of Thatcher, “the secular mindset of most historians of contemporary Britain” (xii). This mindset leads historians to focus on Britain’s withdrawal from empire and decline as a global economic superpower, but miss the collapse of Christianity as another major change with a dramatic effect on Britain’s political culture (xiii).

Filby begins her story in Margaret Thatcher’s birthplace, Grantham, a small town in the East Midlands section of England. Inter-war Grantham had a population of about twenty thousand. It was run by a local borough council in the hands of small businessmen and shopkeepers, like Alfred Roberts, Margaret’s father, who served as an alderman. Alfred Roberts rose from a mere grocer’s apprentice to be the owner of two shops and the mayor of the town. In addition to his service on the borough council, Roberts served his community as a lay-preacher at Finkin Street Methodist Church, a trustee of the Grantham bank, a governor at the local school, and president of the Chamber of Trade and Rotary Club. Margaret was born above the grocery shop in 1925. During her childhood, Margaret had “little privilege,” mainly due to her parents’ thriftiness rather than a lack of money. Her father, like most Methodists of his time, was very wary of debt, viewing credit as being just as corrupting as alcohol and gambling. A collection of Margaret’s sermon notes show that her father emphasized individual salvation (“The Kingdom of God is within you!”) and the Protestant work ethic (“It is the responsibility of man ordained by the creator that he shall labor for the means of his existence”) (21).

In the Roberts’s home, board games, sewing, and newspapers were forbidden on the Sabbath. The family attended chapel for both Sunday morning and evening services, while Margaret and her sister, Muriel, also attended Sunday school. Margaret played the piano for the younger children’s classes. During the week, the Roberts sisters attended Methodist Youth Gild, while their parents attended other mid-week social functions and prayer meetings. Margaret’s childhood catechism book has been preserved and her notes and underlining show the young scholar’s interest in sin and service (14–15).

Politically the Roberts were “old-fashioned Liberals” who switched their allegiance to the Conservatives in the 1930s (24). Ten-year-old Margaret’s first taste of politics came in 1935 as a polling day runner for the local Conservatives. In the Roberts’s political journey “we find one of the important shifts in twentieth-century British politics: the movement of lower middle class Nonconformists [non-Anglicans] from the Liberals to the Conservatives” (24). Shopkeepers and managers, like Alfred Roberts, “now defined themselves not against the landed Tory squires, but the unionized working class” (28). They brought with them to the Conservative Party a libertarian streak that would later clash with the traditional paternalism of the Tories.

A diligent student, Margaret arrived at Oxford University in 1943 while Britain was still engaged in World War II. She became a committed member of the Wesleyan Society, attending its study groups and preaching in nearby chapels (the Wesleyan Methodists opened their pulpits to women in 1918 the same year the nation extended the franchise to them). By her third year at Oxford, the constraints of war had been loosened, the campus was buzzing again, and Margaret became increasingly involved in the Oxford University Conservative Association, and less active in the Wesleyan Society. “The boundless energy she had channeled into preaching the Word was now redirected into rallying the Tory troops” (47).

Leaving Oxford in 1946, Margaret found a position using her Chemistry degree, but her heart was set on pursuing a political career. In 1952, after two hard-fought, but unsuccessful attempts to unseat a Labor MP in a solid union constituency, she married Denis Thatcher, a millionaire who was a “default Anglican,” but not an active believer. “He was worldly, she was provincial; he was establishment, she was Nonconformist; he was rich, she was not” (61). The marriage was definitely a break from her Grantham roots. Margaret moved away from Methodism and became an Anglican. Justifying the move, she said that she longed for more formality in religion and “given that John Wesley had always regarded himself as a member of the Church of England, she did not feel that a great theological divide had been crossed” (67). The move was politically expedient as well: Conservative leaders were expected to be Anglicans. When Margaret and Denis had children, they did not insist on the children’s attendance at church, to the consternation of Margaret’s mother (67). In 1959 Margaret finally became a Conservative MP for Finchley.

It seemed that Margaret Thatcher had completely severed her ties with Grantham, and all it stood for. But the rise of the New Right political movement in the 1970s matched up well with her Nonconformist roots.

The economic arguments against excessive state spending suited her inclination towards thrift; theoretical notions of state interference went hand in hand with her understanding on the foundations of individual liberty, while the desire for moral and economic restraint fed into her innate Puritanism. This was self-conscious but it was not entirely self-constructed. Her upbringing had instilled a class and religious identity that was to be reawakened in the mid-1970s. (109)

From the time Thatcher sought and won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, she presented herself as the candidate who was in harmony with disaffected middle class voters because of her Grantham roots (108). In a radio interview before the first ballot she stated: “All my ideas about life, about individual responsibility, about looking after your neighbor, about patriotism, about self-discipline, about law and order, were all formed right in a small town in the Midlands” (2). All this could be dismissed as political spin, rebranding the millionaire’s wife as a small town girl with small town values. But Filby maintains that Thatcher’s portrayal of Grantham was “not too distant from the reality” and that  “understanding Grantham … is key to understanding Thatcher; not only the religious and political values to which she subscribed but also crucial to explaining some of the naivety and short-sightedness in her political thinking” (3). Margaret Thatcher wanted to revive Grantham values on a national level. She sought to decrease taxes and de-regulate businesses in order to free up individuals and businesses; she valued local autonomy over centralized decision-making and private charity over government redistribution; she wanted to rein in powerful trade unions; she promoted free markets; she believed, unapologetically, in a strong national defense.   

As Thatcher’s critics see it, the problem with Thatcherism was that Grantham values did not work on a national level. Thatcherites did not properly appreciate the differences between the Grantham of Thatcher’s childhood and modern Britain.

Thatcher’s portrait of capitalism was often one where companies were small, privately owned and operated along much the same lines as the grocer’s shop in which she had served as a child. Alfred Roberts behind the counter rather than the yuppie on the trading floor was always the predominant image of market transactions in her mind. There was little reference to, let alone justification for, the system that her government created and would later become the norm. A situation where the nation’s homes and household budgets were intertwined with a global financial services sector that made up an ever-growing percentage of Britain’s GDP, but which was increasingly internationally owned and in the hands of speculators, who were chiefly concerned with short-term gain and distant from the deals and lives they were gambling on. (335)

Putting her Conservative agenda into action, Thatcher encountered stiff opposition from the Established Church, though both claimed to be moved by biblical principles. Their contrasting conceptions of Christianity (and of the individual and the state) can be seen in their interpretations of the Good Samaritan parable. For Margaret Thatcher, the story “demonstrated the supremacy of individual charitable virtue over enforced state taxation … In her uncompromising words, ‘No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’ ” (xviii). For the Anglican leadership, the story meant something quite different, namely the “scriptural justification of the indiscriminate redistribution of wealth” (xviii). As one Anglican Bishop pointed out, “The point of the story is not that [the Good Samaritan] had some money but that the others passed by on the other side” (xviii).

In 1988 Thatcher addressed Scottish church leaders, giving her theological defense of Thatcherism. She emphasized the biblical foundations and temporal applications of the sanctity of the individual, God-given liberty, and the Protestant work ethic. She quoted St. Paul: “If a man will not work he shall not eat,” and distinguished between wealth creation (good) and the worship of money (bad) (239). She praised individual acts of charity and condemned state enforced redistribution. In a clear rebuke, Thatcher stated that “Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform” (239).

Thatcher’s words incensed church leaders, who emphasized society over the individual. They viewed competition, profit, and interest as “dirty words … encouraging human sin, possessive individualism and debasing relationships and values in society” (244–45). In contrast to Thatcher, the Anglican Bishops went so far as to speak of individual acts of charity pejoratively, proclaiming the spiritual superiority of progressive taxation and government redistribution (244). As Bishop David Sheppard put it, “ ‘Charity’ … is discriminate and dictated by preferences or prejudices, whereas indiscriminate contribution through taxation is a greater example of collective giving and ‘belonging to one body’ ” (244). For the Church, social reform was the essence of Christianity.

Hearing this, Thatcher and the Conservatives concluded that the Church leaders were advocating a different gospel. As for the increasingly liberal Church leaders, they were skeptical of the Conservatives’ claims to be motivated by biblical imperatives at all—it seemed to them that the Conservatives were prompted by greed and animus toward the poor.

In the last chapter of God and Mrs. Thatcher, entitled “Reap What You Sow,” Filby evaluates Thatcherism. Since Thatcher once said that “Marxism should be judged by its fruits,” Filby feels justified in judging Thatcherism by its fruits as well, meaning that her analysis doesn’t stop at the prosperity of the 1980s but looks ahead to the later recession of the 1990s and financial crisis in 2008. Though living standards rose in the 1980s, the rise was funded in large part by the expansion of personal debt. Though more and more people became investors in the market with opportunities for great gain, their wealth, savings, and homes were now linked to the volatile global financial market. Bankers may have been partially to blame for the economic downturn, but Filby says it can also be seen as “a crisis in individual morality and the public’s own fiscal irresponsibility” (344). The prosperity generated by Thatcherism resulted in a British society that was consumerist, not conservative; secular, not Christian (349).

Filby argues that Margaret Thatcher’s “conviction politics” were unsuccessful in the “battle for Britain’s soul.” In the early years of Thatcher’s premiership, the priority was getting a grip on the economy, but for Thatcher this was only one aspect of a much larger goal of restoring self-reliance as the basis of personal responsibility and national success. “Economics is the method, the object is to change the soul,” she said (133). In Thatcher’s view, the excesses of the modern welfare state had broken down the fundamental relationship between effort and reward, weakening the economy as well as personal morality. Her reforms—privatizing industry, decreasing market regulation, reining in unions, and increasing market participation by individuals—were aimed at restoring this relationship and were built upon her view of the gospel. According to Filby, “by destroying paternalism, Thatcher succeeded in making Britain more egalitarian in an American sense, but she also created a nation more sharply divided into winners and losers” (310). In a perfect world, the pain of losing would be cushioned by the winners’ acts of charity. But this isn’t a perfect world. When asked what her greatest regret in office was, Thatcher reportedly replied, “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society and we haven’t” (348). Filby concludes:  “The flaw in Margaret Thatcher’s theology was not that she did not believe in society, as many criticized, but that she had too much faith in man. She had forgotten the essence of Conservative philosophy: the Fall” (348).

And this is the “takeaway” from God and Mrs. Thatcher, remembering the Fall. If we, like Thatcher, are champions of individual liberty and opportunity, we should remember that sinful man will never care for the poor as he should, and sinful decisions will cause corruption in our markets and institutions, just as it does in our hearts. If we, like Thatcher’s opponents, insist on the priority of society and promote state-enforced social reform, we should remember that the poor will always be with us—and so will sin. No program and no amount of money will fix problems endemic to this fallen world. This should not justify inaction, but it should prompt all Christian citizens to be humble in debate, realistic in expectations, and marked by a longing for the New Heavens and the New Earth.

If you are looking for a biography of Margaret Thatcher, with all the facts, figures, people, and places important to her life, God and Mrs. Thatcher isn’t the book you’re looking for. Try Charles Moore’s highly acclaimed authorized biography (Volume 1: From Grantham to the Falklands (2013), Volume 2: At Her Zenith: In Washington, London and Moscow (2016), with a third volume anticipated) or Thatcher’s own memoirs, The Downing Street Years (1993). Although it includes biographical detail, Filby’s book isn’t so much biography but an analysis focusing on the role of faith in Margaret Thatcher’s life and politics, and at this it is a success.

Diane L. Olinger is a member of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April 2016.

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Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

The Bard for Preachers

Why Shakespeare Matters

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

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