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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).