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Credit for good intentions

17 April 2015

Nick Spencer on the basis of a former Prime Minister's ideas

God and Mrs Thatcher: The battle for Britain's soul

Eliza Filby

Biteback Publishing £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50 

WHEN I was compelled to open my luggage at Heathrow recently, the airport security man who fingered his way through my dainties caught sight of the book I was reading, which had a picture of Margaret Thatcher on the cover. "Bloody brilliant she was," he informed me, before waving me on.

Eliza Filby quotes the historian Peter Hennessy in her introduction to this meticulously researched, readable, and fair book, to the effect that Thatcher's funeral in 2013 was the moment when the 1980s passed from being politics to history. My encounter at Heathrow suggests otherwise. Thatcher arouses casual and popular passion in a way that most figures of history do not - unless, of course, they are religious figures, and therein, as they say, lies the rub.

Thatcher was a quasi-religious figure, not simply because she was all-but-worshipped by some, but because she dealt in moral certainties that felt chiselled in stone. The irony was that the Established Church of her adult life, and especially of her premiership, did not, and was considerably more agonised (some would say nuanced; others "wet") than she ever was.

Beginning with Margaret Roberts's severe if much mythologised upbringing in inter-war Grantham, Filby passes over the 1950s and '60s relatively quickly, partly because the source material here is thin, and partly because these were the decades in which Margaret wasn't really "Thatcher". It was in the 1970s, especially from the moment she assumed leadership of the Opposition in 1975, that "Mrs T" was born.

Filby carefully teases out the core creeds of this force of political nature, and in particular their deep and serious Christian foundations. "I never thought that Christianity equipped me with a political philosophy," she told an audience at St Lawrence Jewry in 1977, but "it did equip me with standards to which political actions must, in the end, be referred." Those standards were hard work, self-reliance, thrift, enterprise, self-discipline, responsibility, and, above all, freedom. They were not, primarily, the values of public morality, respectability, and decency which Mary Whitehouse and others pressed. Christian conservatives were not always on the same page as conservative Christians.

Let alone on the same page as Christian ministers. Much of Filby's book is taken up with the struggles between Runcie and the Church of England on the one hand, and Thatcher and a rejuvenated Conservative Party on the other, to the extent that the book undersells itself: more than simply about "God and Mrs Thatcher", this is as comprehensive an assessment of late-20th-century British theo-politics as exists.

Ultimately, Thatcher was a roaring success and a complete failure. No one doubts that, as Andrew Marr once put it, we are all Thatcher's children, and yet we are not the offspring she wanted. When Frank Field asked her about her greatest regret, she replied: "I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society, and we haven't." Politics is bedevilled by the law of unintended consequences, and nowhere have those consequences been less intended or more momentous than in the case of the daughter of the Grantham Methodist preacher who once called debt the "curse of mankind".

Nick Spencer is a director of the think tank Theos.

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