Christians ponder Margaret Thatcher's legacy

When Britain’s veteran prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, succumbed to a stroke April 8, the news saturated the country’s media and brought tributes from around the world. 

In some British cities, her critics celebrated on the streets, highlighting the one-time Iron Lady’s divisive legacy. 

Among Catholics, meanwhile, Thatcher’s death evoked mixed feelings, befitting a politician who defended traditional values but also championed business and enterprise. 

“Brought up in a Methodist home, she held strong views about personal responsibility, and this clearly played into everything she believed about society,” Lord David Alton, a British politician and a Catholic, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“The Catholic Church was always something of a mystery to her. But she upheld values grounded in her own experience, and Christianity was central to them,” he said.

Divisive leader

Born Margaret Hilda Roberts into a grocer’s family at Grantham in 1925, Thatcher graduated from Oxford University and qualified as a research chemist and barrister, before being elected a minister of parliament in 1959 and entering government as education minister in 1970. 

She became Conservative Party leader five years later, and Britain’s first woman premier in May 1979. 

As the 20th century’s longest-serving British head of government, Thatcher took steps to reverse high unemployment and inflation, privatizing state-owned companies and curbing the power of trade unions. 

Noted abroad for personal friendships with figures from President Ronald Reagan to Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev, Thatcher was praised in the United States for her commitment to nuclear deterrence, revered in Eastern Europe for hostility to communism and appreciated by Western “Eurosceptics” for opposing expansion of the European Union. 

At home, however, though lauded by those who benefited from her tax cuts and deregulation, she was hated by others, especially in the north, whose communities suffered from the closure of mines and manufacturing industries. 

Despite a third election victory in 1987, Thatcher resigned in the wake of 1990 riots against her planned community charge, or poll tax, and mounting opposition to her stance on Britain’s role in Europe. 

She entered the House of Lords in 1992 as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and maintained a low profile during two decades of declining health.

Christian reaction

Predictably, the politician’s death at age 87 also brought contrasting acknowledgements from Christians. 

In a telegram to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Pope Francis recalled “the Christian values which underpinned her commitment to public service and the promotion of freedom among the family of nations,” while the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, paid tribute to a “life devoted to public service” and “the faith that inspired and sustained her.” 

However, Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough said Britain had become “much more selfish” because of Thatcher’s agenda, which had included selling off successful industries “to improve the lot of the extremely rich.” 

Meanwhile, Britain’s liberal Catholic weekly, The Tablet, insisted Thatcher had curbed union excesses, but allowed reckless financiers to enrich themselves “with horrendous consequences for the national economy.” 

In Catholic terms, the magazine added, Thatcherism had been “about too much subsidiarity without enough solidarity.” It criticized Cameron for calling her “the savior of the nation.” “Such language demonizes all those who came before, and all those she felt she had to crush — many of whom remain crushed today,” it noted.

Influence of faith

By her account, Thatcher’s upbringing had been strict. Her Methodist father had made her attend church three times on Sunday and instilled discipline and duty, in line with the exhortation of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, to “earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” 

She later moved away from Methodism and practiced as an Anglican, explaining to Britain’s Catholic Herald in 1978 that she had felt the need “for a slightly more formal service” and “a little bit more formality in the underlying theology.” 

Lord Brian Griffiths of Fforestfach, who headed her Downing Street Policy Unit and who is now pastor of the London chapel where Thatcher and her husband Dennis were married in 1951, thinks Christianity remained integral to “her worldview and approach to public policy.” 

“She believed we are created in the image of God, which meant people and their families could and should be trusted to be responsible,” Lord Griffiths recounted to The Times of London. “This led her to have a high view of the ability and decency of the ‘ordinary’ person, which was a major factor behind policies that would empower people and their families.” 

If true, this did not prevent Thatcher from feuding periodically with Anglican leaders over issues from Sunday trading to welfare spending. 

When she led Britain to victory over Argentina in 1982 after its seizure of the Falkland Islands, she scorned the insistence of Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury that a thanksgiving service should include prayers for the enemy war dead. Anglican bishops objected to Thatcher’s vilification of striking miners in 1984 as “the enemy within,” and when a Church of England commission published a “call to action” on urban problems in 1985, her ministers retaliated by branding it “pure Marxism.” 

Catholic tensions

Thatcher faced tensions with the Catholic Church as well. 

When inner-city riots erupted in 1981, she was urged by Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool to show compassion, but rejected this as “patronizing.” 

Many Catholics were shocked by her hard-line stance in Northern Ireland, where she rejected demands by Irish Republican Army prisoners even when 10 of them died on hunger strikes in 1981. 

Yet although Thatcher’s approach was colored by personal experiences, including her narrow 1985 escape from an IRA bomb in Brighton, she also helped end the conflict with an Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. 

Lord Alton opposed her deindustrialization program and thinks she made a mistake in alienating Church leaders who could have calmed the public mood. He nevertheless believes Thatcher admired Pope John Paul II, who visited Britain in 1982, and did what she could to defend the rights of churches and religious communities. 

“When it came to advancing freedom in the Soviet bloc, she and the pope were on the same side,” Alton told OSV. “Although she made up an unlikely triumvirate with Reagan and John Paul II, history may well see her role in the Cold War as her greatest single legacy.” 

Lord Alton cites Thatcher’s backing for abortion “under controlled conditions” as a source of Catholic criticism, but recalls that she deeply opposed its use as birth control, and arrived late at night, now weak and in poor health, to back his own bill against embryo research.  

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.