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Authors: Eliza Filby

God and Mrs Thatcher

BOOK: God and Mrs Thatcher
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‘Economics is the method; the object is to change the soul.’


MARGARET THATCHER,
THE TIMES
, 1981

 

Not odd, said God, I’d have you know,

It may seem easy down below

To keep the Bishops all in tow

Just propping up the Thatcher show

Up here, you see, there’s hell to pay

She wants to tell ME what to say!


MICHAEL FOOT MP,
THE TIMES
, 1984

‘All the great political questions of our day are primarily theological.’


ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM TEMPLE
, 1942
1

T
HE OBITUARIES HAD
long been composed; the commemorative pull outs were ready to be printed. Much ink would be spilled over Lady Thatcher’s passing as commentators and journalists filed in earnest to have their say on the first draft of history. Tweets rather than pin-badges were now the chief form of popular protest but it was a more fleeting and disposable kind. Summations of her reign in 140 characters clogged up the Twitter feed, both the sweet chirps of birds and the raspy hiss of vultures. Reporters were dispatched across the kingdom – to Tyneside, Toxteth, Basildon, the Clyde and, of course, to her childhood home of Grantham – all in a desperate bid to gauge that ill-definable thing: the national mood. ‘Thatcher gave me my first home’, ‘Thatcher took away my livelihood’, came
the cries, but anyone born after she had left office in 1990 looked on in bemusement. ‘Wasn’t she an old lady who had lost her memory?’ was the response from one seventeen-year-old.

For a brief moment, Britain appeared to have rewound itself back to the 1980s. In Trafalgar Square, anti-Thatcher protestors geared up for a re-run of the poll-tax riots, although on this occasion the officers on horseback were not necessary. The left tried in vain to resuscitate the lost passion and solidarity of yesteryear, all together now for one last chorus of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’. It was as if they were at a reunion gig of a group they had loved in their youth; they could remember the lyrics but somehow the anthem was not as resonant or powerful as it had once been. Meanwhile former ministers rehearsed well-worn anecdotes of Thatcher hand-bagging foreign dignitaries or of her rustling up shepherd’s pie in the No. 10 kitchen; all revelling in that kinky mix of the regal and domestic that so defined the Iron Lady. Her admirers immediately began the process of canonisation heralding the miracle worker St Margaret, while her detractors were determined to cast her as the Antichrist, the Iron Lady who had had the nation in the jaws of a vice and mercilessly tightened until it could stand no more. How could the media sustain this for nine days until her funeral? How did it ever sustain it for the eleven years she was in power? It was, however, a purely domestic preoccupation. American broadcasters soon lost interest, while one Spanish television channel simply re-hashed material it had used for
The Iron Lady
film starring Meryl Streep.

Lady Thatcher’s funeral in the City was an extraordinary day. The crowd was a mixture of tourists out to see the London they had been promised in the guidebooks, day-trippers from Middle England there to ‘pay their respects’ and City folk hanging out of their office windows avoiding work. All waited until the ceremony was over, not in mourning as such, rather as respectful observers. The British spectator stood patiently and seemingly in harmony with British pomp and ceremony, occupying the narrow City streets not designed for such spectacles.

I spent the day in the media tent opposite St Paul’s Cathedral telling any broadcaster that would give me airtime that Lady Thatcher was a devout Christian, that she had been a preacher before she had entered politics and that the funeral service reflected her Methodist roots. ‘So for our listeners at home, who may not know, could you tell us what exactly a Methodist is?’ enquired one interviewer, who I noticed was sporting a pair of ‘Gotcha!’ engraved cufflinks.
*
I had an inkling that Margaret Thatcher would have been appalled, both by his question and by his choice of accessory.

Even from the grave, it seems, Margaret Thatcher was determined to tell the Church of England what true Christianity was: a heavy dose of ‘hell and damnation’ from the King James Bible and a rousing rendition of ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’. The Bishop of London’s sermon certainly went down better than his words had done thirty years previously. Back in 1982 he had scripted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s notorious ‘pacifist’ sermon delivered at the Falklands War thanksgiving service in St Paul’s. On that occasion, Thatcher was reportedly ‘livid’, but on this day, one would imagine, she would have had no such quibbles.

It was not a send-off like Winston Churchill’s: there were no steel cranes bowing in unison along the Thames. Perhaps the equivalent would have been if that towering shrine to Thatcherism, Canary Wharf, had ceremoniously switched its lights on and off. But Thatcher wanted no such show, no lying-in-state either. In the end, she had judged it about right, seemingly rekindling her populist antennae in death, which some would say she had lost at the end of her political life. Nonetheless, few could ignore the incongruity of a woman lauded as Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister being given a funeral with full military honours. This was not the burying of an international stateswoman
(as evident by the congregation turnout at St Paul’s), rather it was a fitting send-off for the lower-middle-class girl from Grantham who had spent her life rattling the British establishment, but who in death had the Queen, the Church, the BBC, the military, even former enemies in her party, finally celebrating her as one of them.

If George Orwell described England as ‘a family with the wrong members in control’, then Margaret Thatcher was the cruel but indomitable aunt whose favoured nieces sang her praises while those black sheep whom she had disregarded waded in with tales of woe. In death as in life, Thatcher’s presence cast a piercing spotlight on Britain, but instead of revealing it to be either in discord or harmony, her passing simply demonstrated how much it had changed. As a sombre and respectful silence greeted the gun carriage and the pallbearers carried the coffin up the steps into St Paul’s, that woman’s shadow, which had loomed so large for so long, gently faded as the sun burst out over Paternoster Square. The mood was not morbid nor was it celebratory, but rather one of relief. Thatcherism had finally been laid to rest. As the renowned historian Peter Hennessy reflected: ‘The 1980s is no longer politics, but history.’

• • •

I DOUBT MANY
people have uttered the words ‘God’ and ‘Mrs Thatcher’ in the same sentence. To some it may border on blasphemy, even heresy; to the less religiously or politically sensitive, the idea that religion played any significant part in the 1980s is not immediately obvious in a decade dominated by union conflict, deindustrialisation, market liberalisation and the Cold War. Scour any books on the decade and you will find little reference to religion, the Church of England, and next to nothing on Margaret Thatcher’s personal faith. To a large degree this absence is indicative of a broader problem: the secular mindset of most historians of contemporary Britain, which has meant
that religion is largely omitted from writings on the twentieth century (although, for obvious reasons, historians and commentators have been forced to confront the issue in the twenty-first). Crudely speaking, those analysing Britain’s experience hang their work on two central narratives. Firstly, Britain’s withdrawal from empire and its decline as a global economic superpower and, secondly, its transition to a mass democracy and the development of its welfare state. Yet few ponder on that other major change, which was no less dramatic and would have as great an impact on Britain’s political culture, namely the collapse of Christianity. Historians of the nineteenth century, of course, find it impossible to ignore religion. Victorian politics, to a degree, was dominated by the tussle between Nonconformists, Catholics and the Church of England, as Britain’s religious minorities and non-believers, no longer silenced by persecution, fought the long, hard battle for equal recognition before the law. Christians of varying shades spearheaded the great causes of the century from the anti-slavery movement and temperance to social and electoral reform. Parties and votes were sliced along denominational lines, with the Conservative Party firmly positioned as the protector of the Church of England and the Liberal Party forwarding the interests of the Nonconformists. These bonds were not so fixed as to prevent a High Anglican (William Gladstone) from becoming leader of the Liberals, nor an Anglican of Jewish origin (Benjamin Disraeli) to take charge of the Conservatives, but the lengths to which both went to reassure their separate Christian constituencies reflected the enduring strength of these allegiances.

It is commonly assumed that Christianity ceased to have a pivotal role in British politics from the Edwardian period onwards. Disillusionment replaced faith as Britons dropped the cross somewhere amidst the muddy mass slaughter of the Somme, and so it followed that with declining observance came the de-Christianisation and the eventual secularisation of British politics. Nonconformist grievances became faint cries, the pulpit was no longer the training ground for would-be
MPs and the ties between parties and denominations, which had defined the previous century, withered away as class replaced religion as the central dividing line in the mass democratic age.

And yet Christianity in twentieth-century Britain was remarkable not for its sudden death but for its lingering influence on both the left and the right. The formation of the Labour Party owed much to its Christian impetus. It was this spiritual inspiration, which distinguished British socialism from its more secular and radical manifestations on the European continent, that was one of the many reasons why the party was able to quickly evolve into a centrist force. A survey of the first intake of Labour MPs, that was conducted in 1906, revealed that only two out of the forty-five had actually read Karl Marx, with many more citing the Bible as their chief influence.
2
The sacraments could still arouse as much passion as protectionism in Parliament, as the Church of England’s failure to secure the revision of the Prayer Book in 1927–8 demonstrated. Led by Conservative evangelical laymen, Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks and the Attorney General, Sir Thomas Inskip, MPs twice rejected the proposed new version out of fears that the Church had gone too far in accommodating Romanist practices. The cause of Protestant England had been defended and protected by parliamentarians although the debacle was to have important consequences for Church–state relations. A red-faced Church was determined that no such intervention would ever happen again and thus set itself on the path towards greater autonomy from Parliament.

All three parties – Liberal, Conservative and Labour – could claim a Christian ethos and continued to feed off their spiritual heritage. The post-war settlement, which massively expanded the responsibilities of the state in the areas of education, health, welfare and housing, was not simply a political consensus but more profoundly a moral consensus forged out of the shared hardships of the Depression and the War and the common ground between Tory Anglicans and Christian
socialists. In many senses, the post-war settlement, which was to be baptised the ‘New Jerusalem’, was the pinnacle moment in Britain’s Christian politics and one in which the churches, especially the Church of England, played a pivotal role. Things were, however, beginning to change. When, in 1964, Harold Wilson proclaimed that the Labour Party ‘owed more to Methodism than to Marxism’, it was a sentiment with which most party activists could agree, but not for much longer. Soon a more radical form of secular socialism took hold: one that embraced identity politics (that of sexuality, race and gender) but, oddly, seemed to ignore religion as a form of identification. At the same time, One-nation Conservatism began to detach itself from the Church of England and in membership and tone was no longer exclusively Protestant or even Christian.

Nonetheless, most of Britain’s post-war prime ministers were men of faith even if they became wary of preaching the Gospel to an increasingly secular electorate. Harold Macmillan would always reach for his Bible in times of trouble, Harold Wilson could claim a solid Nonconformist underbelly, while Edward Heath was one-time correspondent for the
Church Times
and cited Archbishop William Temple as one of his chief influences. Labour’s Jim Callaghan was born into a devout Baptist household and had been a Sunday school teacher in his youth and, even though he later became a semi-detached member, he always acknowledged the debt he owed to Christianity.
3
The exception was Winston Churchill who, when asked whether he was a ‘pillar of the church’ replied, ‘Madam, I’d rather describe myself as a flying buttress – I support the church from the outside.’
4

Despite declining religious observance, priests did not hide behind their altars and retreat from public life; indeed political engagement was believed to be one way that the Church could connect with the ungodly masses. The Anglican bishops, still with their treasured twenty-six seats in the House of Lords, persisted in offering well-intentioned (but not always well-informed) interjections on the pressing issues of
the day. On the key matters that dominated post-war politics – the evolution of the welfare state, decolonisation of empire, legislation on sexual morality, immigration and industrial conflict – the Church of England did not simply let its views be known, but, in many instances, was crucial in shaping the outcome.

To a certain extent, all this activity has been obscured by the blanket theory of secularisation. But this sociological concept – that is, an understanding that modernisation precipitates the gradual erosion of religion in the public and private sphere – is a relatively unhelpful explanation in the case of Britain, which even today maintains a somewhat complex relationship with Christianity. Crudely speaking, whereas America has a secular state but a largely devout public, Britain has a Christianised state and a predominantly secular electorate. Statistics on churchgoing, which clergymen have morbidly obsessed over since the first religious census in 1851, have traditionally been the litmus test for the strength of belief in Britain. Yet the notion that the spiritual health of the nation should be judged on the number of those who spend a few hours in a church on one day of the week is a rather restricted method of calculation to say the least. Throughout the ages, people went to church for a myriad of reasons, including poor relief, education, compulsion and social expectation as well as out of genuine faith. Christianity has always filtered into and shaped various aspects of British life, be it philosophy, culture, politics or class.

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