God and Mrs Thatcher
John Smith talked openly about his faith, as has Tony Blair. Gordon Brown’s politics are clearly influenced by his religious upbringing. The political values of all three were rooted in something people instinctively understood, even if they did not agree with them. But faith is not unique to Labour by any means. What of Margaret Thatcher? In this new book, Eliza Filby attempts to show how Thatcher’s religious convictions drove her politics and charts her often uneasy relationship with the church.
Thatcher’s early years in Grantham saw her absorb the message that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son’ who chose to lay down his life for the world, that he rose to life again, and that salvation comes through an individual, personal, faith in him. Thatcher distilled this central point, that each person needs to respond individually, and applied it to politics. In her worldview, writes Filby, ‘greater individual freedom would naturally generate a greater sense of responsibility to others. It revealed a naïve hope that greater wealth would not encourage selfishness but neighbourliness, [and] turn us all into Good Samaritans.’ By the time she became Conservative leader this was appealing to many who had been let down by a politics which seemed to have failed. It spoke about freedom and wealth-creation when others were arguing about how to share diminishing wealth. Yet it relied on people acting with moral responsibility and personal restraint. It attacked socialism for being naïve about human nature, but was itself unrealistically optimistic.
The problem too was that the Christian faith stresses the importance of both the equal worth and responsibility of the individual and the fact that we are fulfilled in fellowship. RH Tawney had argued that society should reflect this, but Thatcher specifically repudiated his view. Here lay the root of many of the clashes she had with the churches as they declared that government had a responsibility to do more to combat high unemployment and social injustice. Instead, Conservative governments became characterised by a lack of compassion and whole communities were devastated as a result of their economic policies.
The churches themselves had to learn during the 1980s (Thatcher obviously thought so as she was not afraid of preaching to church ministers). It was not good enough to express sympathy for the poor but then call for outdated socialist policies. It was right to challenge society about how much it should be willing to spend on the less well-off, but they should have reflected further on the changing nature of the economy as dynamic forces were unleashed. Perhaps it is unfair to be too harsh with hindsight, and the churches did employ their own redistribution, with the Church of England channelling funds to poorer parishes.
God and Mrs Thatcher is a well-researched examination of Thatcher’s relationship with the Christian faith, giving a sense of the changes that occurred in British society. Today, the moral force of the arguments that took place on both sides of politics at that time is often forgotten. Filby reminds us how fundamental those battles were and the important part faith played.
This article was first published in the Progress magazine in June 2015.