Singing from the same psalm-sheet

29 September 2017

Robert Philpot’s recent book contrasts Mrs Thatcher’s empathy with the Jewish community with her prickly relationship with the Established Church

 PA/PA Archive/PA Images

Church and State: Margaret Thatcher and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, after a service to mark the Opening of Parliament in 1983

Church and State: Margaret Thatcher and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, after a service to mark the Opening of Parliament in 1983

IN THE autumn of 1985, when the Church of England published a damning report on the condition of urban Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s government came under fire from one pillar of the old guard with which she had taken care not to tangle publicly. In the face of criti­cism, her normal instinct was to fight back.

The Established Church was, though, an altogether more perilous opponent than Tory Party “wets”, municipal socialists, or union ba­rons. Luckily, however, the Prime Minister was to find the perfect shield against this ecclesiastical attack in the form of the man she had knighted four years previously and would soon send to the House of Lords: the Chief Rabbi, Sir Im­­manuel Jakobovits.


THAT Mrs Thatcher should find her most potentially dangerous philosophical opponent in the mid-1980s to be the Church of England was a situation which both pained her personally and worried her politically. Like all caricatures, the image of the Church of England as the “Tory Party at prayer” contained a large measure of truth mixed with a healthy dose of exaggeration.

Even before the publication of Faith in the City, tensions between Mrs Thatcher’s government and the Church were running high. But in the prime ministerial canon of errors it was Faith in the City which was to have a special place. Four hundred pages long, and two years in the making, it proved to be, argued the author Eliza Filby, “one of the most incisive and important critiques of Thatcher’s Britain”.

Mrs Thatcher may have been stung by the Church of England’s attack, but she was not required, as the journalist Hugo Young argued at the time, to depend upon it for “spiritual succour”. That role would be played instead by the memory of the Methodism of her Grantham youth, and the strong echoes she detected of it in the Judaism she encountered in the streets and synagogues of her Finchley constituency.

But, while the Methodist Church showed little more approval of Thatcherism than had the Church of England — in 1988, its Confer­ence would condemn the government’s supposedly divisive policies — Mrs Thatcher was to find a more sympathetic ear in the Chief Rabbi.

Jakobovits’s principal social con­cern on becoming Chief Rabbi was the poor state of Jewish education. In 1971, he met Mrs Thatcher, the then Secretary of State for Edu­cation, for the first time. It was to be the first of many meetings, and the beginning of a warm friendship and ideological kinship which would span her years as opposition leader, Prime Minister, and beyond. In­­deed, she was to be one of the few people that he was on first-name terms with.

Robert Runcie was another of the select band of people with whom Jakobovits was on first-name terms. When meeting at Lambeth Palace or the Chief Rabbi’s residence, the two would often spend time talking to­­gether alone. Jakobovits was sensit­ive to the heavy criticism that the Archbishop was frequently under, and liked to call him to give him an encouraging word.

The two religious leaders often sent each other copies of their speeches in advance. It was, there­fore, no surprise when Runcie sent Jakobovits an advance copy of Faith in the City, asking for his views. It took little time for the Chief Rabbi to come to a view. “When we read it,” recalled his close aide, Shimon Cohen, “it wasn’t Jewish — it wasn’t meant to be Jewish — but it didn’t have that ‘get up and go’. . . It did not resonate with our immigrant experience.” Jakobovits’s view, he later explained, was that the solution to the plight of urban Britain “lies primarily in the efforts of the im­­migrants themselves”.

Jim James/PA Archive/PA ImagesLord Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi from 1967-1991The Chief Rabbi decided to un­­dertake a short study of his own, spending time at Toynbee Hall and some of the churches and mosques of London’s East End, which both had large immigrant communities and had originally been the place
in which most Jewish migrants had settled. He proceeded to write Runcie a 20-page personal reply.

The Archbishop responded: he did not agree with all of Jakobovits’s analysis, but urged him to publish it. It would help provoke an interesting and important debate, Runcie sug­gested.

In January 1986, the Chief Rabbi published “From Doom to Hope”, a forensic dissection of the bishops’ attack on Thatcherism. The Prime Minister could scarcely have hoped for a more thoroughgoing rebuttal. In place of the ill-conceived “Marx­ist analysis” — as the head of her Policy Unit described it — they had offered, here was a religious au­­thority taking the fight to her cler­ical critics and, albeit without explicitly saying so, endorsing much of the basis of her political philo­sophy and her government’s actions.

As the opening paragraphs of his essay made clear, however, Jakobo­vits’s views were longstanding. Their power, and the controversy they provoked, rested on his attempt to draw a sharp contrast between the manner in which immigrant Jews had worked their way out of the ghettos during the early 20th century, and life in Britain’s inner cities in the 1980s. With the riots of the summer of 1981 and autumn of 1985 still fresh in his mind, the Chief Rabbi quoted from the fare­well address he gave when he left New York in 1966 — a period when urban unrest was similarly sweeping America:

“How did we break out of our ghettos and enter the mainstream of society and its privileges? How did we secure our emancipation and civil rights? Certainly not by riots and demonstrations, by violence and protest-marches. . . Above all, we worked on ourselves, not on others. We gave a better education to our children than anybody else had. We hallowed our home life. We channelled the ambition of our youngsters to academic excellence, not flashy cars. We rooted out crime and indolence from our midst, by making every Jew feel responsible for the fate of all Jews.”

Jakobovits then proceeded to provide black Britons with a lecture on law and order. Instead of com­plaining about alleged “institution­alised racism” in the police force, he suggested, their leaders should take a leaf out of the book of Jewish immigrants who had “cultivated trust in and respect for the police, realising that our security as a minority depended on law and order being maintained”.

He also counselled patience. Jews had been prepared to “wait and struggle for several generations” to better themselves. Why, he implied, couldn’t more recent immigrants? Those presently living in hardship should draw comfort from the fact that, as the Jewish experience proved, “self-reliant efforts and perseverance eventually pay off.”

Having offered the residents of the inner cities a supposedly com­forting history lesson, Jakobovits then provided some religious in­­struction on work, wealth-creation, and welfare. The Jewish work ethic, he lectured, was “rather more positive and demanding” than the Christian one set out in Faith in the City. The report had failed to make clear that work was “a virtue in itself”, and that “no work is too menial to compromise human dig­nity and self-respect.” Idleness, the Chief Rabbi contended, was “a greater evil” than unemployment, while low-paid work was “more dignified than a free dole”.

Jakobovits went on to dispute the notion that wealth must be justly obtained, but also fairly distributed. Judaism, he argued, insisted on the former, but did not demand the latter. He did not deny that there was a “collective responsibility” to ensure social justice, but insisted this involved neither “compensa­tion” nor “entitlement”. “The poor cannot be compensated for monies which others earn”; it was the responsibility of those who could to give to those in need, but he dis­missed the notion that they had any entitlement to such giving. Philan­thropy should be directed, more­over, towards providing a hand up, not a hand out.

Finally, Jakobovits suggested, the report failed to provide a proper emphasis on both the importance of personal responsibility — “building up self-respect by encouraging am­­bition and enterprise” — and the central role of the family in regenerating the inner cities. “When the family breaks down,” he wrote, “the most essential conditions for raising happy, law-abiding and creatively ambitious citizens are frustrated.”

The Chief Rabbi concluded by suggesting that Faith in the City was “unduly slanted” against the govern­ment’s policies, and placed too much responsibility on them for the ills of the inner cities. At the same time, he took the trade unions — on whom, he noted, the report had placed no blame — to task for both the “crippling effects on the econ­omy of strikes which paralyse entire industries” and the “selfishness of workers” who attempted to attain better conditions, even at the cost of “rising unemployment and im­­mense public misery”.

Jakobovits was not, as his critics charged, simply spouting Thatcher­ite mantras. As his reference to his sermon in New York indicated, these were views, however unpalat­able some were to find them, which he genuinely held. Two years before Mrs Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, for instance, he spoke pub­licly of his fear that the welfare state was draining individuals of self-reliance, and he disavowed people “getting things for nothing” from it.

As Cohen suggested, the Chief Rabbi’s views on social policy were based on his reading of Jewish teaching. It was the fact that Mrs Thatcher believed that those teach­ings echoed her own philosophy which underlay their relationship.

“Their friendship,” wrote Jakobo­vits’ biographer, Chaim Bermant, arose “not from the fact that one converted the other, but from a co­­incidence of attitudes, and she is sufficiently religious to cherish the fact that she has at least one man of God on her side”.


This is an edited extract from Margaret Thatcher: The honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews helped shape the Iron Lady and her beliefs by Robert Philpot, published by Biteback Publishing at £20 (CT Bookshop £18).

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