What are the main factors that explain the conflict between many church leaders and the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher?

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

by Mark Rowland
No other modern day political figure engendered the same extremes of public opposition and support than Margaret Thatcher. To some she was the ‘Iron Lady’ who eschewed the poor in favour of the rich but to others she was a strong leader willing to evoke unpopular but necessary economic reforms.
However, in a fascinating paradox and in contrast to historical precedent, it was the Church leaders of the 1980s who led much of the protest against Thatchers’ policies. This was despite Thatcher being one of the most openly Christian Prime Minister’s since the war. It was this clash of opinion between two sides claiming inspiration from the same religion that I will seek to explain. I will outline the causes of this conflict before concluding that this clash was the almost inevitable product of long-term political and theological trends that culminated in a particularly dramatic fashion.
It was the Tory government’s under-mining of the structure and scope of the welfare state in a time of increasing unemployment and poverty that motivated the greatest outcry from church leaders in the 1980s. The establishment of the welfare state had arguably been the Church of England’s most telling contribution to public life in the first half of the twentieth century. The Church believed the welfare state to have an important function in creating equality in society and represented society’s duty to protecting the poor (Hastings, 2001 p656). With its debt to thinkers such as Tawney and Temple, the Church of England held strongly to the belief in mutual responsibility for all God’s creation (Clark, 1993 p43).
The Church therefore reserved particular concern for reforms which reflected a more individualistic approach to economic policy. Thatcher’s economic reforms were perceived by the Church to disadvantage the poor, the ones least able to compete in a more liberal economic environment. These policies included the lowering of taxes for the rich, the dismantling of trade union power (especially in the case of the miners) and the increasing privatisation which Bishop Durham referred to as the ‘idolatry of the markets’ (Clark, 1993 p47).
The collapse of the Labour Party in the 1983 General Election meant that there was a political vacuum but gave an opportunity for Church leaders speak out and be heard. Buttressed by the example of the Old Testament prophets, Archbishop Runcie, Bishop Jenkins and others filled the void by openly critcising the government’s policies (Hastings, 2001 p595). Archbishop Runcie emphasised that he felt there had been a desertion of the political support for the welfare state. However, the criticism went further than that with the Church asserting that the government was ‘morally flawed’ and ‘promoted a selfish and callous society incompatible with Christian principles'(Alison and Edwards, 1990 p 29). This was an unprecedented expression of political unease by the established church.
Several reports published by the Church of England seemed to confirm the worst of their fears; poverty in inner cities was becoming more common as a result of increased unemployment, poor housing and inflation. The publication of the most influential of these reports in 1985, Faith in the City, carried out extensive research into the living conditions in cities around the country and argued that only the state could meet the level of social need that existed. With a raft of measures designed to create a more equitable society, the report attracted significant attention and it was to be the high water mark of the Church’s opposition to the Tory government.
However, it was not only economic issues that started the tension. The Church expressed its belief in the peaceful teachings of Christ in resisting attempts to glorify the 1982 British victory in the Falkland by acknowledging Argentinean losses and in concluding in favour of unilateral disarmament in another controversial report in the same year, The Church and the Bomb. The Church’s opposition to the government on these issues were seen by some as the seed of future fractured relations between these once close bed-fellows.
How was it then, that Thatcher’s government could clash so emphatically with the church while still justifying their ‘New Right’ agenda in Christian terms?
Thatcher’s Christianity is an important theological consideration in answering this question. Raised as a Methodist, her evangelical perspective emphasised the importance of the individual salvation and influenced her conviction that every individual before God must take their own responsibility seriously. The parable of the talents adequately summarizes her own political view that each person is capable of being an effective steward of their resources. She believed that enterprise and self determination were the ‘lost luggage’ of a society over dependent on inefficient state provision (Young, 1990 p. 423).
The economic gloom of the 1970’s had persuaded the Tories that there was a need to reform the welfare state and to give more oxygen to the economy. The welfare state had become an inefficient drain on resources and one which was protected from the sharpening influence of the market. Thatcher believed that the existence of such a fore-bearing welfare state was the result of a political mis-translation of ethical principles such as equality and duty, from the personal to the collective. Milton Friedman’s tough talking free-market philosophy, gave her the framework with which to chip away at the semi-socialist structures that she believed were suffocating the nation’s productivity and progress (Hastings, 2001 p593). In this sense, Thatcher was challenging the political consensus that had been upheld by successive governments since the war. In so doing, she was sending a clear message that the Church’s well-meaning interference was based on an out of date mind-set, which placed equality above liberty.
Ironically, Thatcher became frustrated that while the Church attacked her social policies, it was neglecting the very activity of spiritual leadership and moral guidance that she believed would help to solve those problems. In her famous speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1988, she referred to the point that religion should be about ends not means and emphasised its vital role in giving individuals a vision of something greater than their own interests (Alison and Edwards, 1990 p 338). In so doing, Thatcher actually imbued the Church with a greater role than the state by believing in its unique ability to create a dynamic and balanced society.
It is my contention that the ‘writing had been on the wall’ indicating that a conflict of this nature was probable. The Church of England had set its course following the Second World War due to its theological commitment to the welfare state. Therefore, it was likely that it would quite naturally oppose the weakening of that institution. The Conservative Party on the other hand, were the most likely to question and challenge this left of center consensus and were the party least prepared for opposition from their most stalwart of allies. Thus the stage was set for an unprecedented battle…
Alison and Edwards, Christianity and Conservatism, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990
Clark, The Church Under Thatcher, SPCK, 1993
Hastings, A History of English Christianity 1920-2000, SCM Press 2001
Young, One of us, London, Macmillan, 1990

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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