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When the Iron Lady met a steely Church

17 April 2015

The 1980s brought a remarkable remodelling of the Conservatives and the Church of England, says Eliza Filby


I DOUBT that many people have uttered the words "God" and "Mrs Thatcher" in the same sentence. To some, it may border on blasphemy, even heresy; to the less religiously or politically sensitive, the idea that religion played any significant part in the 1980s is not immediately obvious in a decade dominated by union conflict, deindustrialisation, market liberalisation, and the Cold War.

Scour any books on the decade, and you will find little reference to religion, or the Church of England, and next to nothing on Margaret Thatcher's personal faith.

To a large degree, this absence is indicative of a broader problem: the secular mindset of most historians of contemporary Britain, which has meant that religion is largely omitted from writings on the 20th century (although, for obvious reasons, historians and commentators have been forced to confront the issue in the 21st).

Crudely speaking, those analysing Britain's experience hang their work on two central narratives. First, Britain's withdrawal from empire, and its decline as a global economic superpower; and, second, its transition to a mass democracy and the development of its welfare state.

Yet few ponder on that other significant change, which was no less dramatic and would have as great an impact on Britain's political culture: namely, the collapse of Christianity. 

HISTORIANS of the 19th century, of course, find it impossible to ignore religion. Victorian politics, to a degree, was dominated by the tussle between Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, and the Church of England, as Britain's religious minorities and non-believers, no longer silenced by persecution, fought the long, hard battle for equal recognition before the law.

Christians of varying shades spearheaded the great causes of the century, from the anti-slavery movement and temperance to social and electoral reform. Parties and votes were sliced along denominational lines: the Conservative Party was firmly positioned as the protector of the Church of England, and the Liberal Party forwarded the interests of the Nonconformists.

It is commonly assumed that Christianity ceased to play a pivotal part in British politics from the Edwardian period onwards. Disillusionment replaced faith as British people dropped the cross somewhere amid the muddy mass-slaughter of the Somme, and so it followed that with declining observance came the de-Christianisation, and the eventual secularisation, of British politics.

Nonconformist grievances became faint cries, the pulpit was no longer the training ground for would-be MPs, and the ties between parties and denominations, which had defined the previous century, withered away as class replaced religion as the central dividing line in the mass democratic age. 

AND yet Christianity in 20th- century Britain was remarkable not for its sudden death, but for its lingering influence on both the Left and the Right. The formation of the Labour Party owed much to its Christian impetus. It was this spiritual inspiration - which distinguished British socialism from its more secular and radical manifestations on the European continent - that was one of the many reasons why the party was able to evolve quickly into a centrist force.

A survey of the first intake of Labour MPs, conducted in 1906, revealed that only two out of the 45 had actually read Karl Marx. Many more referred to the Bible as their chief influence. The sacraments could still arouse as much passion as protectionism in Parliament, as the Church of England's failure to secure the revision of the Prayer Book in 1927-28 demonstrated.

Led by two Conservative Evangelical laymen - the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, and the Attorney General, Sir Thomas Inskip - MPs twice rejected the proposed new version, out of fears that the Church had gone too far in accommodating Romanist practices.

The cause of Protestant England had been defended and protected by parliamentarians, although the débâcle was to have important consequences for Church-State relations. A red-faced Church was determined that no such intervention would ever happen again, and thus set itself on the path towards greater autonomy from Parliament. 

ALL three parties - Liberal, Conservative, and Labour - could claim a Christian ethos, and continued to feed off their spiritual heritage. The post-war settlement, which massively expanded the responsibilities of the state in the areas of education, health, welfare, and housing, was not simply a political consensus, but more profoundly a moral consensus, forged out of the shared hardships of the Depression, the war, and the common ground between Tory Anglicans and Christian socialists.

In many senses, the post-war settlement, which was to be baptised the "New Jerusalem", was the pinnacle moment in Christian politics in Britain, and one in which the Churches, especially the Church of England, played a pivotal part. Things were, however, beginning to change.

When, in 1964, Harold Wilson proclaimed that the Labour Party "owed more to Methodism than to Marxism", it was a sentiment with which most party activists could agree - but not for much longer. Soon, a more radical form of secular socialism took hold: one that embraced identity politics (that of sexuality, race, and gender), but, oddly, seemed to ignore religion as a form of identification. At the same time, one-nation Conservatism be- gan to detach itself from the Church of England, and, in membership and tone, was no longer exclusively Protestant, or even Christian.

NONE the less, most post-war Prime Ministers in Britain were men of faith, even if they became wary of preaching the gospel to an increasingly secular electorate. Harold Macmillan would always reach for his Bible in times of trouble; Harold Wilson could claim a solid Nonconformist underbelly; and Edward Heath was for a short time news editor of the Church Times, and cited Archbishop William Temple as one of his chief influences.

Labour's Jim Callaghan was born into a devout Baptist household, and had been a Sunday-school teacher in his youth; even though he later became a semi-detached member, he always acknowledged the debt he owed to Christianity.

The exception was Winston Churchill, who, when asked whether he was a "pillar of the Church", replied: "Madam, I'd rather describe myself as a flying buttress - I support the Church from the outside."

Despite declining religious observance, priests did not hide behind their altars, and retreat from public life; indeed, political engagement was believed to be one way that the Church could connect with the un- godly masses. The Anglican bishops, still with their treasured 26 seats in the House of Lords, persisted in offering well-intentioned (but not always well-informed) interjections on the pressing issues of the day.

On the key matters that dominated post-war politics - the evolution of the welfare state, decolonisation of empire, legislation on sexual morality, immigration, and industrial conflict - the Church of England did not simply let its views be known, but, in many instances, was crucial in shaping the outcome.

CRUDELY speaking, whereas the United States has a secular state but a largely devout public, Britain has a Christianised state and a predominantly secular electorate. Statistics on churchgoing, which clergymen have morbidly obsessed over since the first religious census in 1851, have traditionally been the litmus test for the strength of belief in Britain.

Yet the notion that the spiritual health of the nation should be judged on the number of those who spend a few hours in a church on one day of the week is a rather restricted method of calculation, to say the least. Throughout the ages, people went to church for a myriad of reasons, in- cluding poor-relief, education, compulsion, and social expectation, as well as out of genuine faith. Christianity has always filtered into, and shaped, various aspects of British life, be they philosophy, culture, politics, or class.

It is, however, an undeniable fact that, from the late 1960s, Britain, like most other Western countries (with the exception of the US) experienced a dramatic decline in Christian worship and affiliation. Yet, on the eve of the Thatcher years, Britain could hardly be called "secular"; for in education, broadcasting, law, and, of course, ceremonial character, Britain remained identifiably Christian.

Enoch Powell was surely right when he wrote, in 1981: "The nation was once not as religious as some like to believe, nor is it now as secular as people now like to assume." The blend between the secular and sacred may have been less obvious by the late 20th century, and no longer a decisive factor at election time, but it remained a notable undercurrent running through political thought and action.

In short, Christianity still mattered, and it would matter significantly during the fractious years of the 1980s. 

THE 1980s represent a key juncture in this narrative for two reasons. First, in 1979, unbeknown to most of the public at the time, Britain had elected its most religious prime minister since 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.

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 that, rather surprisingly, and often willingly, stepped up as the "unofficial opposition" to defend what its clergy 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 clergy routinely condemned neoliberal theory and practice as being fundamentally at odds with the Christian principles of fellowship, interdependence, and peace.

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 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 which was most frequently evoked. For 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."

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."

Behind these differing interpretations of one parable lay contrasting conceptions of Christianity, of polit-ical values, and, indeed, of the nation itself.

IT IS, of course, possible to examine the '80s 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 that had much to do with the decline of its traditional working-class support base, and very little to do with Christianity.

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 more than 200 years. Cracks in this relationship could be dated back to the early 1900s, but the final break would come only in the 1980s under 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 20th 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 position 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 20th 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.

Thatcher, however, stands apart from this narrative. This is because both the Left and the Right (for different reasons) have chosen to grant her an almost mythical-like status. Your opinion of 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 Thatcher to the past, and locate her place within it rather than see her as an a historical phenomenon of either saintly or devilish pro-portions. 

This is an edited extract from God and Mrs Thatcher (Biteback Publications, £25 (Church Times Bookshop, £22.50).


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