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Thatcherism — now the religion

19 April 2013

That "now": the Daily Mail headline on Monday

That "now": the Daily Mail headline on Monday

PEOPLE talk as if Margaret Thatcher did nothing for the Church of England. At least her funeral seems to have kept the latest lucubrations on marriage by the Faith and Order Commission out of the headlines. This is fair enough, since no one in the outside world was part of its intended audience.

Instead, we had the wonder-working earring of the Bishop of Grantham. Its mere presence in a headline allowed readers to know that he was a bad lot. I should say here that I know nothing whatever about him, but that's the way showbusiness works: a bishop with an earring is a dangerous radical, whereas a bishop in a frock is a reliable traditionalist.

It is never easy to tell from the outside whether there is an element of sincerity in the Mail's distress. Its headline on the bishop story was a case in point: "Now earring-wearing Bishop of Grantham attacks funeral cost". Is that "now" supposed to suggest that the nation would have united around her, were it not for those pesky pinko bishops?

I was also impressed, despite years of experience, by the remarkably low standard of the rentaquotes it found for the story. One Tory MP claimed it was absurd for a bishop to have an opinion, since the Queen, "who is head of the Church of England" had signed off on the arrangement.

Compare this with the interesting and subtle points made in the Telegraph's long piece on the religious development of Lady Thatcher, by the historian Eliza Filby. This made some fairly obvious points that are easily forgotten: "Thatcherism always owed more to Methodism than it ever did to monetarism. This was the real source of Mrs Thatcher's 'conviction politics'.

"Thatcherism centred on a charismatic leader who cultivated a religious aura, was promoted like a religion, had notable converts like a religion, was rejected like a religion, and would cause a sharp divide within the nation like that of a religious war from centuries past."

And, like a religion, Thatcherism offered a way for society to understand itself, and, wrapped up in that, an anthropology as well: an idea of what an individual is, and where they are distinct from the society and the others around them. These things work only when they are self-evident, and one of the many contradictions of Thatcherism was that its economic and social effects were so very corrosive of self-evidence. Nothing could, any longer, be taken for granted. And perhaps this means that even the Daily Mail's anguish at having to justify the wonderworking good-ness of Lady Thatcher has somewhere a smidgeon of sincerity.

The Filby piece also contained details of which I had been unaware. The woman who introduced unlimited Sunday trading was brought up in a profoundly Sabbatarian household: "Their Methodism centred on an absolute observation of the Sabbath. Adhering to the letter of the Fourth Commandment, board games, sewing, and even newspapers were forbidden. . .

"Her childhood catechism shows no signs of boredom; no doodles or names of boys encased within a heart and arrow, only the markings suggestive of an attentive scholar with the words 'service' and 'sin' under- lined."

The final irony comes in the only one of her father's sermons to have been preserved: a denunciation of the Attlee government on the grounds that: "Men, nations, races or any particular generation cannot be saved by ordinances, power, legislation."

I wonder what Alderman Roberts would make of the claim that his daughter, her ordinances, her powers, and her legislation, had saved this country in the 1980s. No doubt he would have accepted it whole-heartedly. Without hypocrisy, conviction would be powerless.

I SUSPECT that the most lasting story of the week was actually nothing to do with London, or even Boston, where the deaths of three people in a bomb attack has been covered rather more comprehensively than the deaths on the same day of 30 people in bomb attacks in Baghdad. People dying violently in Iraq is hardly news anywhere these days.

Pope Francis's appointment of eight cardinals to advise him on church government might be the beginning of the end of the traditional Curia. This is needed. There are some very fruity scandals still to come in the wake of Vatileaks.

But, instead of attempting a head-on reform, he seems to have prepared the Curia for a future of inglorious irrelevance. Is this the Jesuit style?

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