Margaret Thatcher has died and passed into Glory
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to die...a time to lose...a time to mourn...a time to weep...Margaret Hilda Thatcher, the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire, is dead.
She was the first woman leader of the Conservative Party (indeed, of any major political party) and the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, holding office from 1979 to 1990.
Some will doubtless rejoice at the news, but very many more will mourn. They may not have agreed with all that the Iron Lady said or did, but the vast majority respected her as a woman of conviction and of principle; a woman who said what she thought and did what she said. Surveying the modern political scene of sophistry, duplicity, inconsistency and spin, she clearly belonged to another era.
Thousands of obituaries will be written today the world over. They will speak eloquently of how she reversed Britain’s decline of the 1970s; of how she forged a distinct Conservative political philosophy; transformed economic thinking; survived an assassination attempt and won a glorious victory for liberty against tyranny in the Falkland Islands.
They will recall the Cold War era and her close friendship with President Ronald Reagan, which was based not merely on a shared distrust of Communism, but the genuine warmth of fraternity. Few obituaries are likely to mention her devout Christian faith, which was the foundation of her political programme and the bedrock of her conviction for less government, lower taxes, more freedom and greater personal responsibility.
When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4th May 1979, on the steps of 10 Downing Street she paraphrased the Prayer of Saint Francis: 'Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.'
Through considerable periods of social upheaval and racial tension, her personal standing and reputation increased to deliver successive parliamentary majorities which were acknowledged just about everywhere except her alma mater Oxford University, which took the decision to make her the first Oxford-educated post-war Prime Minister not to be awarded an honorary doctorate. In politics, she divided opinion: you either loved her or hated her. But many of those who hated secretly admired her conviction: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!"
Baroness Thatcher's Christianity was grounded in the Protestant nonconformity of devout and evangelical Methodism: her conservatism was Tory in its Burkean deference to the great institutions of state but thoroughly Whiggish and libertarian after Mill in its iconoclastic challenge to the big agencies of state; in her emphasis on the ‘work ethic’ kind of Protestantism, and her patriotic belief in the national British Christian spirit and her notion of morality as the opportunity for free choice. She had what some identified as a ‘puritan streak’, espousing the values of the English suburban and provincial middle-class and aspiring skilled working-class. These contrasted with the values of the establishment élite of the Church of England, landowners, university academics, the Foreign Office and the professions.
Her writings and speeches are unequivocal in the provenance of her theo-political worldview. In Statecraft, she wrote: ‘I believe in what are often referred to as “Judaeo-Christian” values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them’. In the second volume The Path to Power she went further: ‘Although I have always resisted the argument that a Christian has to be a Conservative, I have never lost my conviction that there is a deep and providential harmony between the kind of political economy I favour and the insights of Christianity’.
But a speech she made at the zenith of her power is perhaps the most illuminating of all her statements with regard to her theology, and it is worth looking at it in some detail because she began it by saying that she spoke 'personally as a Christian, as well as a politician’.
It was a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, in which she outlined what she identified as the ‘distinctive marks of Christianity’ which ‘stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives’. And perhaps in a swipe at those ‘meddlesome priests’ who were critical of some of her policies throughout the 1980s, she declared that ‘we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ’.
In this speech, Margaret Thatcher was unwavering in her interpretation of Scripture which gives ‘a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life’: of how the theological ‘is’ translates into the political ‘ought’; how Christianity remains relevant to public policy. And so she emphasises the traditional conservative view of the family which is ‘at the heart of our society and the very nursery of civic virtue. And it is on the family that we in government build our own policies for welfare, education and care'. And with an appeal to the Apostle Paul, she reminded her audience that ‘anyone who neglects to provide for his own house (family) has disowned the faith and is "worse than an infidel"’. Yet she was not deluded by the biblical ideal, recognising that ‘modern society is infinitely more complex’ and that ‘new occasions teach new duties’. But some things are sacrosanct:
I believe strongly that politicians must see that religious education has a proper place in the school curriculum. In Scotland, as in England, there is an historic connection expressed in our laws between Church and State. The two connections are of a somewhat different kind, but the arrangements in both countries are designed to give symbolic expression to the same crucial truth: that the Christian religion – which, of course, embodies many of the great spiritual and moral truths of Judaism – is a fundamental part of our national heritage. And I believe it is the wish of the overwhelming majority of people that this heritage should be preserved and fostered. For centuries it has been our very life blood. And indeed we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.To dispel any notion that Margaret Thatcher was simply exploiting Christianity for electoral purposes, it is possible to trace this golden thread in speeches she made prior even to becoming Leader of the Opposition: there is a distinct and consistent Nonconformist leitmotif running through all of her political writings. Her government essentially constituted an applied theology; it was, she said, ‘engaged in the massive task of restoring confidence and stability to our people’ because ‘unless the spirit of the nation which has hitherto sustained us is renewed, our national life will perish’. She reintroduced into British politics a missionary mood that reflected her provincial and Methodist origins.
The ‘spirit’ of which she spoke was unequivocally and uncompromisingly Christian. She said: ‘I find it difficult to imagine that anything other than Christianity is likely to resupply most people in the West with the virtues necessary to remoralise society in the very practical ways which the solution of many present problems require’. Here, Margaret Thatcher comes as close as she can to identifying Christianity and Conservatism. One can speculate that for her any distinction between Christianity and Conservatism is a technical theological distinction, and that the values and principles associated with the two sets of beliefs were normally, temporally, indistinguishable.
She comes very close to this position in her volume Statecraft when she argues that certain cultures are 'more conducive to free-enterprise capitalism and thus to economic progress than others'. She had in mind the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition' as opposed to what she calls the 'great Asian religious traditions' and the 'religious traditions of Africa'. It is not necessary to agree with this analysis – and there are many problems with it – to recognise that for Baroness Thatcher a spiritual renewal meant essentially a Christian cultural renewal, not to fill the churches, but to ensure economic growth and prosperity.
Perhaps no prime minister since Gladstone could have risked telling a journalist that she was ‘in politics because of the conflict between good and evil’, with the conviction ‘that in the end good will triumph’. But it is not her policies which ultimately saved her. It is not her programme of government, her political achievements or her world renown. Margaret Thatcher is saved because Jesus Christ was and is her Lord and Saviour: He paid the price: she is forgiven.
The angels are today rejoicing in Heaven at a pilgrim who has come home. But the name of Margaret Thatcher - The Great Lady - is sure to endure on earth and reverberate throughout human history.