As Mrs Thatcher passed away last week, I wonder how long it will be before we can reach a sensible assessment of her career. When teaching students born in John Major’s Britain, I used to struggle to bring alive to them quite how divisive a figure she was, and how much visceral emotion about her person has lived on in our political subconscious as a nation. The loathing that some felt for all that she stood for was brought home to me by the spontaneous laughter, tinged with relief and the cathartic release of repressed bitterness, that I overheard the day the news broke. And so for historians of my generation, who came to political consciousness when she was Prime Minister, there is considerable work to be done in shedding that baggage, in order to be able to look at her legacy in the cold, hard light.
This also applies to the work needed to assess her Christianity. And work we must, if only because much of the comment from Christian voices has threatened to obscure the very real debate we need to have about whether Thatcherism ought to be retrospectively glossed as more or less ‘Christian’ at all.
Colin Bloom of the Conservative Christian Fellowship thought that ‘history will show that she, more than any other British prime minister of the past 60 years, changed our nation for the better.’ (1) George Carey, who was archbishop during the later part of her time, admitted that whilst there were divisions in opinion over specific policies, overall ‘as I look back now I think her instincts were absolutely right.’ The new Pope referred to the ‘Christian values which underpinned her commitment to public service and to the promotion of freedom among the family of nations.'(3)
Perhaps the wiser course would have been to have remained as agnostic as Vincent Nicholls, who simply expressed a humane concern for a grieving family, since there are surely an equally significant number of Christians whose immediate feeling is that her instincts were in many respects wrong, and perhaps actively inimical to the cause of the gospel. Bishop John Packer, who had been working in Doncaster during her time in office, sounded a much more equivocal note on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, as did Giles Fraser in the Guardian. Although no Christian herself, Glenda Jackson made a revealing choice of terms when telling Parliament (Hansard, cols 1649-50) about ‘the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage …. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees..’
Some elements of the question are clear. That she personally professed a strong and consistent faith is hard to dispute. That she was theologically literate is evident from the famous ‘Sermon on the Mound‘ given to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988. There is interesting scholarly work that re-emphasises the importance of her understanding of theology as formative to her work, such as that by Liza Filby and Antonio Weiss. John Milbank‘s recent intervention should also be required reading.
After that, we lack agreed points of reference to begin to have a sensible conversation about her. Values central to her rhetoric, such as thrift, self-discipline, industry and self-reliance are all traditionally associated with Conservatism, but have also been at times claimed by Christian socialism. Or what of the ‘socialist’ values of communal aid, concern for the poor and the sending of the rich empty away; all of which have equally well been seen by Christians not as the duty of the state, but of the individual, or the ‘Big Society’ at local level ? The longer-range history of British politics shows that no political party ever managed to command the loyalty of a majority of Christians, as does the failure of avowedly Christian parties. Those principles often seen as Christian have continued to evade political capture of this sort.
I have no answers; and I suspect it is too early to make sense of the religious elements of Thatcherism as history. At the very least we need access to key sources, such as the majority of her official papers which are still closed, as well as those of Robert Runcie and Carey at Lambeth Palace. In the meantime, commentators on both left and right should probably stop trying to assess a political program in terms of its Christian content or lack of it. The debate is stale, and gets us nowhere.