Elizabeth Filby is a writer, businesswoman and Visiting Fellow at King’s College, London. She is the author of God and Mrs Thatcher.
It is an undeniable fact – and one that rightly breeds fear among the Tory ranks – that the Conservative Party has not won an outright victory in a general election for 23 years. David Cameron, now its leader for a decade, has offered the public a multi-dimensional conservatism of many shades, but can we really say his revocation of it has generated mass appeal?
What Tony Blair had done for the left; Cameron pledged to do for the right in detoxifying the party – but unlike Blair, Cameron has not carried the people with him. His green Conservative agenda, although laudable, was abandoned as soon as the Crash hit – with its only remnant being the symbol of a tree adorning party literature. A new socially liberal conservatism, embodied in the legalisation of same-sex marriage, has successfully undone some of lingering damage of Section 28, but it also upset the Conservatives’ core support.
The conservatism of national solidarity in times of austerity, embodied in the phase, ‘we’re all in it together’ acquired currency for all the wrong reasons, and is now only referenced in jest – fuelling the old perception that the Conservative party is for the privileged few and not for the many. While Cameron has shown himself to be suited to the pragmatic day-to-day requirements of governing, he perhaps lacks the ideological vision necessary to win elections. The green tree of Cameron’s Conservatism appears not to have moral roots.
This is in stark contrast to when the Conservatives last underwent a fundamental reordering during the mid-1970s. Then the impetus was certainly economic – to wake Britain up from its Keynesian coma – but, as Keith Joseph readily acknowledged in a speech in 1974, ‘Monetarism is not enough’. Neo-Conservatism was both populist and principled and importantly, embodied in the strong moral values of its new leader, Margaret Thatcher.
Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman are routinely referenced as the intellectual prophets of Thatcherism but, as Alfred Sherman correctly noted, Margaret Thatcher herself ‘was a woman of beliefs, not ideas.’ Whereas Keith Joseph’s conversion to economic liberalism was intellectual, Thatcher’s was instinctive. During the mid-1970s, Thatcher found that the principles of the New Right chimed with those lessons she had heard her lay-preacher father, Alfred Roberts, deliver in the pulpit of Finkin Street Methodist Church, Grantham. The economic arguments for a smaller state suited her Methodist inclination towards thrift; a stress on individual liberty complemented her non-conformist grounding in God-given free will, while the idea that employment should be a matter of individual rather than governmental responsibility mirrored her belief in the Protestant work ethic.
It is to Grantham and, more specifically, to Finkin Street Methodist Church and the sermon notes of Roberts – which are now housed in Thatcher’s personal archive at Churchill College, Cambridge – where one can source the true moral foundations of Thatcherism.
In keeping with the Methodist tradition, the sermons emphasise the individual call to faith (‘The Kingdom of God is within you’) and the Protestant work ethic; ‘a lazy man’ was one who had ‘lost his soul already’. Her father’s sermons also reflect the interweaving of the religious with the political. In a coded reference to the leading debate of inter-war politics – protectionism versus free trade for example, Roberts claimed that: ‘God refuses to put grace on a tariff’. In other words, the universal freedom of the market should mirror the universal availability of God’s grace. This was a doctrinal legitimation of the ‘invisible hand’, which echoed that of the nineteenth-century free trade Liberals, and was one that his daughter would annunciate with equal passion 40 years later.
As would be expected of a dissenter, Roberts also extolled the virtues of religious liberty and condemned its opposite: religious uniformity. But this too he also laced in political terms, with religious conformism likened to ‘a denominational closed shop’ with both compulsory trade union membership and mandatory affiliation to a particular faith considered infringements on the sanctity of personal freedom.
In another extract, Roberts aligned spiritual conformity to totalitarianism: ‘Uniformity can be a soul-destroying agent, as evil as totalitarianism, and totalitarianism, can end in the systematic dehumanisation of man’. Addressing the party conference in 1989, Thatcher served up a similar homily on liberty in her crusade against atheistic communism: ‘Remove man’s freedom and you dwarf the individual, you devalue his conscience and you demoralise him.’ A moral fervour rooted in the sovereignty of liberty always governed her thinking both at home and abroad.
In another sermon from 1950, five years into Attlee’s reconstruction reforms, her father offered a warning to those who invested too much faith in earthly powers: ‘Men, nations, races or any particular generation cannot be saved by ordinances, power, legislation. We worry about all this, and our faith becomes weak and faltering.’ Incidentally, Roberts also thought that the Church’s involvement in social issues was a diversion from its evangelical purpose and turned the church into ‘a glorified discussion group’.
Thatcher would make an identical point in her controversial speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988: ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.’ In her father’s view, the real danger in the modern world was not poverty but affluence. ‘No man’s soul can be satisfied with a materialistic philosophy’, he warned, only ‘the stern discipline and satisfaction of a spiritual life’. The struggle of how morally to square the free market with the materialist culture it created was something that his daughter would wrestle with throughout her premiership.
Thatcher always challenged the association of collectivism with virtue, while positively asserting the Biblical basis of individual liberty and the free market. As she reminded the congregation in a speech on ‘The Spirit of the Nation’ at St Lawrence Jewry in 1981: ‘It was to individuals that the Ten Commandments were addressed’. Thatcher’s belief was that as Christianity was a call to men individually, so it should follow that political choices reside with the citizen rather than the state. Even more contentiously, she argued, Conservatives’ ‘start with Man’ (rather than socialists who ‘begin with society’), Conservative philosophy was thus more in harmony with the Christian faith. This Biblical interpretation that centred on individual free will was of course politically convenient. God-given free will, once used against an overbearing Church, was appropriated by Thatcher to undermine an over-bloated state.
In 1979, the conviction politics of the Iron Lady satisfied a thirst for certainty in an age of profound doubt. We are now living through a similar period of disillusionment, which is arguably more deep-rooted than that of the 1970s and cuts across both the market and the state and those institutions governing them. The problem with contemporary conservatism is that while it broadly adopts the economics of Thatcherism, it has abandoned the moral message underpinning them.
And despite Cameron’s attempt to assert his Christian credentials in the run up to Easter, there is little sense that his faith plays a major role in his politics or that he is prepared to vigorously promote the moral case for capitalism (unlike Boris, who is willing to do). It may be the ‘economy, stupid’ that ultimately determines elections but, in this instance, the British public is unlikely to be moved simply by dry statistical proof on Britain’s economic revival. If Cameron seriously wishes to reverse two decades of Conservative failure at the polls, he would do well to channel some of Thatcher’s moral resolve.