“Economics are the method,” wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1981, “the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Guided by her Christian faith, the prime minister believed that the welfare state was not only harming her fellow citizens but damaging the moral fabric of the United Kingdom. As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite explains, Thatcher’s fears about the welfare state were twofold:
First, she and her advisers thought that generous collective provision for unemployment and sickness was sapping some working-class people’s drive to work. Second, they feared the corrupting influence of what Thatcher’s close ally Keith Joseph called ‘the Father Christmas state’ on the middle class, who were thought to be in danger of relying increasingly not on their own hard work and thrift, but on collective action through trade unions and state hand-outs. Thatcher wanted to re-establish an economic and legal framework and a cultural ethos which rewarded what she saw as the ‘Victorian’ or ‘bourgeois’ values of thrift, self-reliance and charity among all classes.
“The aim was not to abolish the welfare state entirely,” adds Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, “but to chip away at it, leaving social security as a last resort for the very poorest minority, and making it irrelevant to those on middle and high incomes, who would choose private provision instead. In this, Thatcher was successful.”
But not everyone believed that Thatcher’s efforts were rooted in a moral concern. In 1985 the Church of England released a document authored by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas. The controversial report blamed the spiritual and economic malaise largely on Thatcher’s economic policies.
Now, thirty years later, the Church of England is admitting that perhaps Thatcher was right after all:
The revised analysis is signalled in a discussion document, commissioned and endorsed by the House of Bishops, on welfare issues. It calls on the church to accept that governments were motivated by more than economic concerns when trying to reform welfare policies.
The paper says: “Recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill-communicated, are not without moral purpose.” It also says that a report in 1985 entitled Faith in the City, in which the Church of England condemned the Thatcher government over poverty in urban areas, had misunderstood her motivations.
The new paper isn’t official policy, but it’s a positive step that shows the Church of England is beginning to recognize that they “failed to see the moral vision that informed Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, and therefore failed to engage coherently with that vision…”
As Eliza Filby, a lecturer at King’s College and author of God and Mrs Thatcher, told The Times, “ [This document] does admit something bishops didn’t admit in the 1980s, which was that Thatcher was coming from a moral and Christian perspective. They spent most of the Eighties calling her un-Christian.”
Maybe someday we conservatives can wring the same type of confession from the liberal churches in America.