August 13, 2016


God, Mrs. Thatcher and Brexit, Too : Review of Filby's God & Mrs. Thatcher (Will Higgins, August 4, 2016, Providence)

In her book God & Mrs. Thatcher, Dr. Eliza Filby, professor of British History at Kings College in London, recognizes this tendency to perceive Margaret Thatcher as some ahistorical persona present in all of Britain's affairs. Filby thus attempts, without minimizing Britain's first female Prime Minister's achievements or personality (that would be a futile endeavor indeed), to "consign" the Iron Lady to her historical context. We cannot be led by the dead, no matter how formidable, but we can learn from them. In other words, when applying the thrust of Filby's argument to the continuing post-Brexit uncertainty, asking "Would Thatcher have been a Brexiteer?" is not the operative question, but rather, "How does understanding Thatcher in her context inform us in ours?" Filby points out that the Iron Lady's "passing simply revealed how much [Britain] had changed" between her premiership and her death. With Brexit underway, the UK promises to continue changing. After rejecting the EU bogeyman, British citizens must think deeply about what they want for their country and how they must behave to get it.

Apart from contextualizing Thatcher's life and legacy, God & Mrs. Thatcher, as the title implies, contributes to our understanding of Margaret Thatcher by tracing the Christian, specifically Methodist, origins of her political convictions. It places what her husband, Denis Thatcher, called her "deep religious faith" at the center of the narrative. Filby recounts that Denis referenced his wife's faith when correcting Bernard Ingham, who purported to enumerate Mrs. Thatcher's leadership style with five characteristics, none of which touched on religion. Like Denis Thatcher in that instance, Filby contends that including Margaret Thatcher's faith is essential for understanding the Prime Minister. She goes a bit father, however, rightly situating Christianity as the organizing theme for Margaret Thatcher's whole life and work. Refreshingly, the author understands that ideas and beliefs can be powerful motivators, even for powerful people.

Some ideas encountered in childhood stick. To see this in Margaret Thatcher's life, one must start in Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire where she grew up. As a politician, Thatcher invoked her early years for overtly political purposes (to distance herself from the "millionaire's wife" label and extol the virtues of capitalism), but her time in Grantham was truly formative. Margaret's father was a devout Methodist and a grocer. She inherited his abhorrence of debt, so it is "not without irony" that her government later allowed significant expansion of personal credit. Both father and daughter struggled to reconcile the creative power of free-market capitalism with the materialist culture it encouraged. Filby's text shows Thatcher's world-view never severed itself from Grantham.

As the introduction to God & Mrs. Thatcher advertises, the book is not technically a biography. This is clearly seen in Filby's overview of the late 1960s, a time when political discourse presaged somewhat the discussions now surrounding Brexit. 1968 was a year of upheaval. The political center was in crisis. Enoch Powell delivered his "Rivers of Blood" speech, which stirred fears about immigration in the midst of a struggling British economy. Sound familiar? Powell was vigorously anti-European but ardently pro-market, a policy pairing that has earned him the title "God-father of Thatcherism." It should be noted, however, that in the 1970s Margaret Thatcher strongly supported the European Economic Community (EEC), which Britain entered in 1973. Similarly to modern discourse, immigration fueled in some quarters the sense that "British-ness" was eroding. By 1980 "a tangible sense of England" was entering Tory thinking on immigration and European federalism.

Thatcher became party leader in 1975 and won the PM position in 1979. Once in office she followed Powell's belief that the Gospel is primarily for the individual and that "original sin" could be leveraged against utopian visions of society. Powell also paved the way for Thatcher's opposition to the agenda of liberal Anglicanism, calling the clergy amateurs in economics and politics.

Posted by at August 13, 2016 7:21 AM