I can’t deny the fact that I am one of Thatcher’s children. I was four years old when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and she remained leader of our country throughout almost all of my school career. Growing up in Dorset, which was a Conservative heartland, the miners’ strikes seemed like a different world. For us Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives were doing a good job. Our area had high employment and from what I could gather at a young age, her policies benefitted many of those around me. Why would you not want to vote Conservative when things were this good?
Of course things weren’t that good for everyone. After I’d started in my first job I made friends with someone much older than me who had worked as a manager in British Coal. When the closures came, he was given the job of firing large numbers of his workforce and personally dismissing them bit by bit over time. He knew that when his task was complete he would then be fired too. The stress of it all ruined him. He had a serious mental breakdown which destroyed his marriage. He was left shattered, lacking confidence and only able to take on a simple job with little responsibility part-time. For him Margaret Thatcher was only associated with pain and despair.
Being in power longer than any other prime minister in the 20th century at a time of social upheaval and radical change both nationally and internationally meant that the world looked vastly different when Margaret Thatcher left office compared to when she came to power. And that goes for all of us who lived through that time. Our lives in 1991 were far removed from how they had looked in 1979 and much of that change could be attributed to Thatcher’s policies. It’s no wonder she became such a divisive figure depending on how we fared over that period. Since her death was announced, we’ve seen many emotions and memories from that time bubbling to the surface again reigniting strongly partisan political passions the like of which we haven’t seen since the days before the Blair’s Iraq war. Death can cause us to do some bizarre things. Why else would people buy ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’? Objectively, what does this achieve?
Talking to those a who were born before me over the last few days, there has been a consensus that Britain was in a mess and heading in the wrong direction when Margaret Thatcher came to power and that change was both necessary and inevitable. Even those on the left of politics admit that she got a lot right although her determination not to be beaten or back down meant that plenty got hurt along the way. The thing with history is that we’ll never know if life would have been better or worse if Margaret Thatcher had not been in power or how different our country would look if alternative decisions had been made. What we can be sure of is that she placed her stamp on history in a way that very few do.
I was considering this as I watched the funeral at St Paul’s yesterday. Thousands had turned out to see the procession and attend the service, not because she had been born or married into any position of grandeur or power, as with royal funerals, but because she had chosen to devote her life to serving her country. As Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London gave the sermon, we were reminded that what lay behind her motivation was her Methodist upbringing and Christian faith. Quoting a lecture she gave at the church of St Lawrence Jewry in 1978 he said:
“She described her own religious upbringing in a lecture she gave in the nearby church of St Lawrence Jewry. “We often went to church twice on Sundays, as well as on other occasions during the week… We were taught always to make up our own minds and never take the easy way of following the crowd.”… “Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reforms…We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.””
Just as opinion is heavily divided over whether she was a great leader, so it is as to whether she was a good Christian role model. Dr Grahame Smith tackles this in his detailed article on Margaret Thatcher’s faith on the Theos website, describing her as a Christian who understood her political task to be the moral and spiritual revival of Britain. He writes:
‘Yet for many in the churches she represents all that is wrong with contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. They argue that Thatcher’s monetarist policies generated widespread unemployment and poverty, and plunged whole communities into hopelessness and despair. The response to these critics comes from Thatcher herself. Her Christian faith was personally important and, more significantly, it moulded her political policies and decisions. One of the most important themes for Thatcher was national revival, leaving behind the failures and defeatism of the 1970s to be replaced by the confidence, strength, and optimism of the 1980s. Thatcher believed this revival, so vital for Britain’s economic success, was mainly spiritual and that the spiritual values were Christian. For Thatcher Christianity and her brand of Conservatism were two sides of the same coin.
‘What form did this Christianity take? In part it was typically non-conformist. She advocated hard work, thrift, self-reliance and independence. The values of the entrepreneur were firmly rooted in the Gospels. Alongside the emphasis on independence was a belief that people were generous, and that the British people could be trusted to be benevolent and charitable. She knew there were selfish exceptions, but on the whole she believed people would be protective of their families, kind to their neighbours, and charitable in their local communities. Further such benevolence was morally superior to state intervention which removed the possibility of moral choice and responsibility from the individual.’
Perhaps her faith in the generosity of others led to some stark failings. During Thatcher’s time in power we became a more materialistic and individualistic society. The Labour MP, Frank Field, gave a speech in the House of Commons during the session of tributes to her last week. He described how he asked her what had most disappointed her from her time in power. She had told him: “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society and we haven’t.”
Great leaders are never perfect, but they almost always have this in common: they have utter conviction in their beliefs that drives them forward. Think of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or St. Paul for example and you see individuals who are sold out for what they believe in . And so often this motivation comes though faith in God. In the same way, Margaret Thatcher was never going to be swayed by opinion polls or focus groups in the way many modern politicians appear to be. Her desire was to see this country being revived and changed for the better. Her Christian beliefs gave her the framework through which she attempted to make this happen.
Such conviction inevitably leads to division. While some embrace and follow with zeal, others reject and oppose. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, Luther King was assassinated and St Paul was executed. Jesus is the ultimate example of this conviction and divisiveness. Margaret Thatcher like all of us fell short of Jesus’ example and many have had good reason to reject her and her actions. In fact her own convictions and stubbornness in time led to her downfall as her party eventually rebelled against her. Conviction will get you a long way, but it in order for it not to become misguided, it needs to be tempered by wisdom and a willingness to admit your failings.
Despite this, many politicians and leaders would do well to follow her example if they want to rise above mediocrity. Conviction politicians with a vision for a better future based on something greater than the system they work within are in short supply. In an age of spin where our political leaders constantly have one on the next election, it’s not surprising that many of us look back to Margaret Thatcher’s leadership style with (sometimes begrudging) respect. Unless we have more politicians who are led unswervingly by their beliefs and a servant attitude, it will be a long time before we have another state funeral for a political leader of our country in the manner of which we saw yesterday.