The iron Bible
Two responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher
It’s the sudden influx of policemen that I remember. Funny accents. English. And in a small mining town during the 1984 miners’ strike, it was always suspicious to be English.
‘She had a heart and made it hard’
I was 10, following a flashing van on the school bus, when we noticed that they were all waving money at us. Bundles of notes. None of us knew why and Mr Bevan grimaced when he told us as he called the register: “It’s because they’ve got it to wave.” Overtime. Metropolitan officers paying their mortgages while our brothers and cousins couldn’t pay their shopping bills.
So you already know what I think of Mrs Thatcher. Just like the recent obituaries that only told you which side of the political line their authors fell, it was difficult to pretend to arrive at a nuanced conclusion after that.
Of course it was impossible to know whether the prime minister was aware of how her forces were acting on the ground. She – or someone under her authority – had decided that local police forces, inevitably sympathetic to the families in their home towns, weren’t sufficient to keep order on the picket lines. But the point at which those decisions become wilful community-breaking acts is difficult to discern.
Mrs Thatcher began her career as someone who understood lack of privilege. Understood, as a grocer’s daughter, what it was to have to count pennies. Surrounded by public school boys in her party of choice, as a grammar school girl she knew what it felt like to battle through haughty condescension. This was how she knew that people in council houses wanted to own their own homes. Had the same aspirations as everyone else. At some point she had had a heart, and made it hard.
But it is not our job, as followers of Christ, to judge someone’s heart. We can only take positions on whether her policies were good or bad for the country – for the flourishing of human development. But equally it is worth noting how even our highest values, held as principles rather than in the operation of compassion, can become millstones. Christian history is littered with examples of how people, clinging to some deep-rooted piece of theology, overlooked their first law of love.
How wrong it would be, then, to forget it ourselves when considering the life and work of a woman whom only God can judge. Whom God loved and held dear. I cannot pretend to hold Mrs Thatcher dear. But I must continue to hold to a power that did.
Simon Jones is the editor of Third Way magazine
‘Thatcher’s religion was undiluted, confident, courageous’
Thatcher read quite a lot of “theological work”. Five years after the Young interview, she resolved to read the Old Testament through, informing staff of her progress and admitting that she found it rather “gory”.
This theological interest was not a private, leisure-time one. (Thatcher did not do leisure-time). “I never thought that Christianity equipped me with a political philosophy,” she said in 1977, but “it did equip me with standards to which political actions must, in the end, be referred”. Her political philosophy was based on what she called “Judaeo-Christian” values.
This is ironic given how vociferously the British churches opposed her. In Faith in the City, the Archbishop’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas criticised the government (as well as the church itself). It “absolutely shocked” her, sold 83,000 copies, and captured the front page for four days.
Four years later, Thatcher delivered her “Sermon on the Mound” to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland making an extraordinarily explicit apologia for her theo-political beliefs, referencing Genesis, Leviticus, the Ten Commandments, the Gospels, St Paul, C S Lewis, an unnamed preacher and two hymns. The public response, it is fair to say, was not rapturous.
Thatcher’s religion was like Thatcher herself: undiluted, confident, courageous. It was intelligent and nothing like as unsubtle as some claimed. She told the Church of Scotland that Britain was “a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible”, but was clear those biblical ideals comprised a delicate balance between interdependence and self-reliance. Not since Gladstone had the nation enjoyed such a theologically engaged leader.
The problem was that, like the prime minister herself, it was mono- rather than dialogical. The leader who had the nerve to raise such “fundamental” issues in public, already knew the answers. It was the rest of us that had to learn.
It is silly to lament this. MPs do not become PMs by “raising issues”. Still, we may regret that Christianity’s last significant political outing – subsequent leaders have hidden any theological lights under their political bushels – was more of a sermon than a conversation.
Nick Spencer is research director at Theos thinktank
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.