There is no figure in modern British politics quite as divisive as Margaret Thatcher. For the Right, she has been practically beatified, yet to be a left-winger and profess admiration for her is tantamount to blasphemy. The debate surrounding Thatcherism is laced with terms concerning good and evil, from both sides. And, therefore, it is only fitting that Eliza Filby’s new book, Thatcher and God, should focus on Thatcher’s relation to religion.
In all of the conversations I’ve had about Thatcher and her legacy – too many, believe me – Filby stands out as being incredibly well informed and passionate. I was keen to find out what prompted her to look at this under-examined, religious dimension of Thatcher’s reign, and began by asking her this.
“I did my PhD on the role of the Church of England in opposing Thatcher’s government and have always been fascinated that Britain has a secular public but a ‘sacred state’, whereas in the US you have the exact opposite,” she begins. “At a time when the Labour Party was in disarray and wrought by internal strife, it was the C of E that offered the most important critiques and opposition. It was even known as the unofficial opposition to the Thatcher government and Robert Runcie (Archbishop of Canterbury) opposed the Falklands War, commissioned a report on urban poverty in the wake of the Brixton riots, and criticised Thatcher’s government for being associated with selfish individualism, greed, and destroying a sense of ‘one nation’.” From such observations, Filby’s interest in Thatcher’s religiosity developed.
The turning-point came when I looked into her personal archives
“The turning-point came when I looked into her personal archives and found the sermons of her father, who was a Methodist lay-preacher,” explains Filby. “She came from a very devout background, her family attending chapel three times on a Sunday. The most influential person in her life was her father, who would take Margaret around the local Methodist circuit, so Methodism was a very central part of her growing up.” Filby continues: “Looking into her father’s sermons, I realised that actually, within these messages about fiscal thrift, moral rectitude and individual liberty, were the moral foundations of what we now know as Thatcherism.” She notes with interest that many politicians come from strong religious – particularly nonconformist – backgrounds, and cites Tony Benn, whose mother was a feminist theologian, as another example.
Thatcher delivered sermons herself while studying at Oxford, being an active member of the University’s John Wesley Society, and was in many ways a preacher before she was a politician. Filby comments on how Thatcher often sought to link religion to her politics. She famously quoted St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No. 10. Then there was her controversial sermon to the Church of Scotland, “where she managed to alienate the entire Scottish nation”, quips Filby. Thatcher always tried to provide biblical justification for her policies. “She marketed herself as a conviction politician,” Filby explains; “there had to be a link between these religious roots and her political convictions.
So I started investigating that and realised that actually, when it came to the C of E’s relationship with Thatcher, it was about two opposing theologies not two opposing political ideologies. The Church is saying Christianity is about social reform and the common good, whereas Thatcher is saying ‘No, it’s about spiritual redemption and personal responsibility’.” Filby is clearly fascinated by this dimension to Thatcher, and neatly sums it up with, “the more religious references I found in Thatcher’s speeches the more I realised that her anchor, her intellectual and moral starting point, was not Friedrich von Hayek, but John Wesley.”
It is clear that Thatcher indeed valued her faith, along with its core messages of restraint, moral rectitude and responsibility. However, it is undeniable that Thatcher’s policies led to a nation that was more individualistic, hedonistic and greedy. With this in mind, I press Filby as to whether Thatcher ever regretted unleashing the forces she did.
“Yes,” comes the instant reply. “Peregrine Worsthorne [Telegraph journalist] once said that, ‘Margaret Thatcher came into Downing Street determined to recreate the world of her father and ended up creating the world of her son.’ It’s a pretty damning assessment but it’s actually quite true.” Filby stresses that in many ways Thatcher was “a woman from another time”. “When Thatcher talked of the market,” states Filby, “she had a very parochial view of what the market consisted of. It wasn’t the yuppie shouting down his phone on the trading floor; it was her father working in his grocer’s shop. She didn’t envisage the world she would eventually create and let loose; one of interrelated global financial markets gambling on people’s savings, lives and mortgages.”
“She didn’t envisage the world she would eventually create and let loose”
Filby acknowledges that Thatcher may have had “laudable aims”, but these were not translated into reality. “She actually believed that she was creating a nation of good Samaritans,” Filby asserts. “She believed if she lowered taxation she would give people more money in their pocket, they would give to charity and it would inspire a philanthropic ethos. She believed if people stopped relying on the state for jobs, benefit payments and even healthcare it would generate a sense of personal responsibility.” Although these may have been Thatcher’s aims, Filby declares that the outcomes were quite to the contrary. “My argument is that she transferred our dependency away from the state to the banks, which has had fatal consequences,” she explains. “People did feel wealthier at the end of the 80s, but this was largely down to global access to debt and credit. So you get cases where people owe money to the banks and have access to it, and therefore loads of spending power. Levels of personal debt shoot up, and we are living with the consequences now.”
We move on to Thatcher’s personal regrets. “Margaret Thatcher never delighted in the bankers’ bonus culture,” states Filby. “She wasn’t comfortable around wealth – particularly excessive wealth – and practised what she preached in terms of thrift.” Filby continues: “Thatcher would always publicly refute that she gave rise to a culture of individualism and irresponsibility, but privately she would acknowledge that some of her reforms did encourage people to be reckless with money.” Thatcher’s main regret is also the most surprising one. “Frank Field [Labour MP] asked Thatcher what was her biggest regret in office,” recounts Filby, “and it wasn’t the Falklands victims or the miners’ strike – it was not taxing the rich highly enough, and thereby not instilling a sense of the responsibility that comes with wealth.”
Thatcher’s legacy is guaranteed to stoke heated opinions for a long time to come, but Filby’s stance is refreshingly level-headed and balanced. The last chapter of the book sets out her stance on this issue and she summarises thus: “where the left go wrong when talking about Margaret Thatcher is that they assume there was no moral underpinning in the economic rationale behind Thatcherism, but where the right go wrong is they don’t acknowledge or admit that there are clear discrepancies between her aims and her outcomes.” Eliza Filby’s work provides a unique and incisive insight into one of the nation’s political giants, and I look forward to any future publications.
Eliza is also founder of GradTrain, an organisation working with universities training Graduates in communication, public speaking and interview technique, helping graduates prepare for the workplace.