The Real Iron Lady: Thatcher, Thatcherism and Christianity

Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, once said that one of the key principles driving his wife was her "deep religious conviction".

Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, once said that one of the key principles driving his wife was her "deep religious conviction".

Yet this crucial part of her character does not receive the attention it deserves in the forthcoming Hollywood biopic of her life, The Iron Lady. Indeed, despite the fact that she was the most religious prime minister of the 20th century and that more so than any other premier her career is littered with speeches and statements professing her Christianity, very little attention has been paid (in any medium) to the Christian values which helped shape the political ideology of Thatcherism, an ideology which continues to loom large over the British political landscape.

Born into a traditional Nonconformist family, Thatcher's claim in her memoirs that her young life '"evolved around [Wesleyan] Methodism" is well substantiated; her father was a popular local preacher, as a young girl she attended church up to three times on Sundays, and at Oxford she joined the John Wesley Society and Student Group - meeting twice a week - and often preached in church halls.

Even though she made the switch to Anglicanism in later life (largely for reasons of political expediency in joining the 'established' church) which some saw as a repudiation of her Wesleyan upbringing, Thatcher retorted: "John Wesley regarded himself as a member of the Church of England to his dying day. I did not feel that any great theological divide had been crossed."

Thatcher's faith was of an Old Testament-Pauline doctrine which for her emphasised two key principles: personal responsibility and freedom of choice. Both of these became fundamental tenets of Thatcherism, and in particular, its creed of individualism.

Firstly, for Thatcher, personal responsibility entailed obligations both to oneself and to each other. As she wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 1978: "we are all members one of another [and this] is most vividly expressed in the Christian concept of the Church as the Body of Christ; from this we learn the importance of interdependence and that the individual achieves his own fulfilment in service to others and to God."

Crucially, however, as she told the congregation of the Church of the St Lawrence Jewry the same year, it was the responsibility of individuals and not the state to provide this service, as "there are grave moral letting people get away with the idea that they can delegate their responsibilities to public institutions." Secondly, as Thatcher said in a 1983 television interview regarding freedom of choice, "the denial of personal choice is an outright denial of Christian faith". Politically she used this to support her commitment to minimal state intervention.

As I argued in the Guardian in 2010, commentators have been too willing to dismiss British prime ministers professing their religious beliefs as the mere payment of lip-service to a waning tradition.

Undoubtedly for some premiers this may be true - every prime minister since the sixties has claimed to be a practising Christian - but for Thatcher, religion and politics were inseparably intertwined. For instance, against a backdrop of declining religious belief in the 1980s, she gained little politically from telling the Today programme "that the fundamental reason of being put on earth is so to improve your character that you are fit for the next world".

Nor did she direct her religious pronouncements to American listeners, where she might have encountered a much more receptive audience.

A few weeks ago David Cameron faced considerable hostility - and in some instances ridicule - for claiming "the Bible has helped to give a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today." Thatcherism provides a perfect example of this. Amidst the inevitable forthcoming Thatcher-nostalgia, we should not let the obfuscations of The Iron Lady allow us to lose sight of this crucial element of one of the defining political ideologies of the twentieth century.

For a more detailed exploration of Thatcher's religious beliefs, please visit here


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