God & Mrs Thatcher: The Battle for Britain's Soul

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Biteback Publishing, 2015 - Great Britain - 407 pages
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A woman demonised by the left and sanctified by the right, there has always been a religious undercurrent to discussions of Margaret Thatcher. However, while her Methodist roots are well known, the impact of her faith on her politics is often overlooked. In an attempt to source the origins of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘conviction politics’, Eliza Filby explores how Thatcher’s worldview was shaped and guided by the lessons of piety, thrift and the Protestant work ethic learnt in Finkin Street Methodist Church, Grantham, from her lay-preacher father. In doing so, she tells the story of how a Prime Minister steeped in the Nonconformist teachings of her childhood entered Downing Street determined to reinvigorate the nation with these religious values. Filby concludes that this was ultimately a failed crusade. In the end, Thatcher created a country that was not more Christian, but more secular; and not more devout, but entirely consumed by a new religion: capitalism. In upholding the sanctity of the individual, Thatcherism inadvertently signalled the death of Christian Britain. Drawing on previously unpublished archives, interviews and memoirs, Filby examines how the rise of Thatcher was echoed by the rebirth of the Christian right in Britain, both of which were forcefully opposed by the Church of England. Wide-ranging and exhaustively researched, God and Mrs Thatcher offers a truly original perspective on the source and substance of Margaret Thatcher’s political values and the role that religion played in the politics of this tumultuous decade.

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About the author (2015)

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


The broad aim of this book is to examine the interrelationship
between religion and politics in post-war Britain. It is thus a two pronged
story concerning the politicisation of Christianity on the one
hand and the Christianisation of politics on the other. It therefore
seeks to demonstrate how the political class sought inspiration (and
legitimisation) from the Gospel for their political ideas and policies
and how the Established Church, to the same degree, viewed engagement
in politics as part of its spiritual mission. The 1980''s represent a
key juncture in this narrative for two reasons. Firstly, in 1979, unbeknownst
to most of the public at the time, Britain had elected its most
religious prime minister since William Gladstone, one who from the
very first moment of her premiership referenced her spiritual motivation
by reciting a prayer on the steps of No. 10. Margaret Thatcher,
though, did not simply draw on Christianity for rhetorical ornamentation
for, as the daughter of a Methodist lay-preacher, she had a clear
understanding of the religious basis of her political values. In fact, it
was no accident that Britain elected a Nonconformist woman precisely
at the time that its ''Nonconformist conscience’ died; the conviction
politics of the Iron Lady satisfied a thirst for certainty in an age of
profound doubt. Just as the emergence of Thatcherism needs to be
set within the context of Britain’s economic and industrial decline,
so too does it need to be analysed within the context of the country’s
religious decline.

Secondly, one of the most politically damaging and forceful challenges
that Margaret Thatcher faced throughout her premiership was
from the Church of England. While the Labour Party endured a period
of self-inflicted paralysis, it was the Established Church which, rather
surprisingly and often willingly, stepped up as the ''unofficial opposition’
to defend what they considered to be Britain’s Christian social democratic
values. In the pulpit, at the picket line, on the Lords’ benches
and in the inner cities, the Anglican clergy routinely condemned neo-liberal
theory and practice as being fundamentally at odds with the
Christian principles of fellowship, interdependence and peace. How
and why the Established Church sought and gained such prominence
at a time of declining faith is one of the central themes of this book.

The Conservative Party and the once-dubbed ''Tory Party at Prayer’
became locked in a conflict that would have political, spiritual and,
in some cases, personal consequences. For many, though, this was not
a minor political spat; it reflected a serious theological gulf. Was the
biblical message principally about individual faith and liberty as Margaret
Thatcher enthusiastically proclaimed, or collective obligation
and interdependence as the bishops preached? Of all the biblical references
that littered the sermons and speeches of politicians and clergy
in the 1980s, it was the parable of the Good Samaritan that was most
frequently evoked. For Margaret Thatcher, the story of a Samaritan
helping an unknown, battered man, who was lying helpless in the
road, 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.’6 For the Anglican leadership, on the other hand,
the parable meant something quite different, namely the universality
of human fellowship and the scriptural justification for the indiscriminate
redistribution of wealth. As the Bishop of Stepney made clear:
''The point of the story is not that he had some money but that the
others passed by on the other side.’7 Behind these differing interpretations
of one parable lay contrasting conceptions of Christianity, of
political values and, indeed, of the nation itself.

It is, of course, possible to examine the 1980''s not in terms of competing
theologies but in terms of ideologies, namely the polarisation between
left and right. If the contribution of the Labour Party is downplayed
slightly it is because the left had abandoned the post-war consensus
(to an even greater degree than the right) and was entangled in a civil
war, which had much to do with the decline of its traditional working class
support base and very little to do with Christianity. This is a
book chiefly about the conflict between the Established Church and
the Conservative Party, not about the various fortunes of Christian
denominations in post-war Britain. But, of course, it is impossible to
tell this story without reference to them and, in particular, to the rise
of the ecumenical movement. Nor does this narrative deal sufficiently
with that province where the convergence between religion and politics
was most apparent and most damaging: Northern Ireland. This
is in part because the Troubles were a sectarian conflict rather than
a theological war of words on the rights and wrongs of capitalism. If
anything, the toxic mix of the religious and the political in Northern
Ireland revealed the tameness of the debate in Britain.

Of course Christians can be found on both sides of the political
spectrum and Christianity itself has been both a progressive and a
conservative force throughout history. If there is one scriptural certainty,
it is that biblical interpretation is elastic and can be moulded
to justify whatever one wishes to endorse, be it the ''invisible hand’ of
the market or the socialist utopia. In this specific case, the Church of
England shifted further leftwards while the Conservative Party took
a sharp turn to the right, causing an irrevocable breach between two
institutions that had been close allies for over 200 years or more. Cracks
in this relationship could be dated back to the early 1900''s but the
final break would only come in the 1980''s under Margaret Thatcher.

It might be said that both the Church of England and the Conservative
Party have transformed more than any other British institutions
in the twentieth century. Paradoxically, for two organisations supposedly
concerned with tradition and preservation, both have shown a
remarkable ability to adapt in order to survive. That the Church of
England was not only able to maintain, but, in many ways, strengthen
its role as the Established Church in a secular pluralised society may
have been by default rather than explicit design. Arguably, it has proved
remarkably successful. The Conservative Party has gone through a
similar process of reinvention. In the age of mass enfranchisement,
the party of land and privilege gradually morphed into promoters
of the free market and the upwardly mobile class, while maintaining
its paternalistic tone and old establishment associations. It was not an
easy transition and, like the Church, it consistently faced complaints
from within its membership. But, by doing so, the Conservatives were
able to become the most successful political party of the twentieth
century. Collectively, what it does suggest is that all the heated debate
over what is ''true’ Conservatism or ''true’ Anglicanism - a favourite
navel-gazing pastime of both Anglicans and Conservatives - ultimately
reflects a wilful misreading of their complex histories.

Margaret Thatcher, however, stands apart from this narrative. This
is due to the fact that both the left and the right (for different reasons)
have chosen to grant her an almost mythical-like status. Your
opinion of Margaret Thatcher is immediately given away by how you
refer to her; some literally spit out her surname with an emphasis on
the first syllable, others prefer the overly familiar ''Maggie’. Even after
her death, the political class and the public still struggle to speak of
the former Prime Minister as a part of history, consumed as they are in
a seemingly exhaustive debate over whether her time in power offers
the cause or the remedy for today’s problems. This hints at one of the
main motivations of this book: a wish to consign Margaret Thatcher
to the past and locate her place within it rather than see her as an
a historical phenomenon of either saintly or devilish proportions.

By and large, the British prefer their prime ministers to be pedestrian
rather than charismatic characters. One need only compare the
palatial grandeur of the White House to the poky flat above No. 10
to illustrate this point. The post of prime minister, curtailed as it is
by a parliamentary chamber and constitutional monarch, facilitates
the British dislike and distrust of strong leadership. Yet Margaret
Thatcher is one of the few occupiers

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