The Myths of Margaret Thatcher, Sermon on the Mound Edition

17 April 2013

12:49 PM

17 April 2013

12:49 PM

Like Iain Martin, I was not sure a full ceremonial funeral was quite appropriate for Margaret Thatcher. That is not to dismiss her achievements or her significance, merely to wonder if such pomp was wholly suitable for a figure who has proved as divisive in death as she was in life.

And yet, the majesty of the service at St Paul’s worked its magic. Combining grandeur with simplicity it said simply this: Margaret Hilda Thatcher mattered.  It is hard to think of other non-Royal Britons who will be afforded, far less merit, this kind of send-off.


I thought the Bishop of London’s address splendid. It deftly punctured some of the myths that surround the Thatcher legacy. She was, in truth, always more complicated than either her admirers or her enemies admitted. Chartres quoted her 1988 speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Remembered now as a hymn to materialism, money and greed it was nicknamed The Sermon on the Mound. But, as ever, the myth has corrupted reality. It is worth returning to the actual text.

Interrupted by applause several times, it is an address marked by a humility that might surprise those nurtured on the Thatcher caricature. This was the most “controversial” passage:

May I also say a few words about my personal belief in the relevance of Christianity to public policy—to the things that are Caesar’s?

The Old Testament lays down in Exodus the Ten Commandments as given to Moses , the injunction in Leviticus to love our neighbour as ourselves and generally the importance of observing a strict code of law. The New Testament is a record of the Incarnation, the teachings of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Again we have the emphasis on loving our neighbour as ourselves and to “Do-as-you-would-be-done-by”.

I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life.

We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. “If a man will not work he shall not eat” wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation.

Nevertheless, the Tenth Commandment—Thou shalt not covet—recognises that making money and owning things could become selfish activities. But it is not the creation of wealth that is wrong but love of money for its own sake. The spiritual dimension comes in deciding what one does with the wealth. How could we respond to the many calls for help, or invest for the future, or support the wonderful artists and craftsmen whose work also glorifies God, unless we had first worked hard and used our talents to create the necessary wealth? And remember the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment.

[…] None of this, of course, tells us exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have. On this point, Christians will very often genuinely disagree, though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect. [Applause] What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.

We are all responsible for our own actions. We can’t blame society if we disobey the law. We simply can’t delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others. The politicians and other secular powers should strive by their measures to bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but they can’t create the one or abolish the other. They can only see that the laws encourage the best instincts and convictions of the people, instincts and convictions which I’m convinced are far more deeply rooted than is often supposed.

Nowhere is this more evident than the basic ties of the family which are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue. And it is on the family that we in government build our own policies for welfare, education and care.

You recall that Timothy was warned by St. Paul that anyone who neglects to provide for his own house (meaning his own family) has disowned the faith and is “worse than an infidel”.

We must recognise that modern society is infinitely more complex than that of Biblical times and of course new occasions teach new duties. In our generation, the only way we can ensure that no-one is left without sustenence, help or opportunity, is to have laws to provide for health and education, pensions for the elderly, succour for the sick and disabled.

But intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility. The same applies to taxation; for while you and I would work extremely hard whatever the circumstances, there are undoubtedly some who would not unless the incentive was there. And we need their efforts too.

As I say, a more nuanced vision than that which is sometimes remembered. Wealth is necessary because of what it allows us to do, not because it is valuable for itself. Building a community without wealth or work is akin to making bricks without straw. Possible, perhaps, but less than ideal. She added:

Nevertheless I am an enthusiast for democracy. And I take that position, not because I believe majority opinion is inevitably right or true—indeed no majority can take away God-given human rights—but because I believe it most effectively safeguards the value of the individual, and, more than any other system, restrains the abuse of power by the few. And that is a Christian concept.

But there is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals—these are not enough.

We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.

But when all is said and done, the politician’s role is a humble one.

It is true that Mrs Thatcher’s actions did not always honour that truth or make good its promise. Nevertheless it is surely something worth remembering and a truth that her successors might also contemplate.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Britindian

    As Martin Luther said so pithily: “The Devil can quote scripture to his purpose.”

  • Britindian

    What is the point of warbling about the deep Christian morality of a person like Thatcher who went out of her way to be a friend to Augusto Pinochet, a military tyrant who overthrew a democracy and slaughtered and tortured thousands of innocents? It is idle indeed and an obscene insult to speak of the profound spirituality of such a ruler as Thatcher, who also made life far grimmer for the poorest in Britain.
    The fact that so much of our press is indulging in this adulation of a callous politico proves how degraded the politics of our time have become.

  • allymax bruce

    Alex’ nice article; I liked it.
    Maggie’s ‘sermon on the mound’ speech? Well, she got the whole point of Luke 20;25 completely wrong! The verse goes, “And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Geneva Study Bible), which means, give unto the ‘world’ what is/remains in the world, and give back to God His Spirit-of-God.
    Maggie never really understood the Gospels; there’s no wonder really. Look how she ‘used’ the scriptures to her own purposes. Thus, her quotation of this scripture, ironically was out of context, and completely the opposite of what Luke/Gospels were saying!
    Ha !

  • ProffessorPlum

    “That is not to dismiss her achievements or her significance, ”

    Many people have written about ‘all her achievemants’ and I have asked many people to NAME ONE.

    Still waiting……..

    • Ron Todd

      getting the Falklands back.
      Getting a rebate from the EU
      Beating the miners while closing fewer pits than previous labour government.
      Becoming first female PM
      Winning three general elections

      • terregles2

        Being the first woman PM then doing nothing for women. I am a woman and in my book that makes her a dismal failure. She did nothing to help women with childcare or in any aspect of their working lives.
        She tried to create an image of strength by surrounding herself with weak spineless yes men. All women had to be excluded from her circle as she only tolerated weak yes men.
        It is interesting that she could never have made it to the top of the political tree if she had not married a millionaire. Without his wealth she would have faced the same family duty constraints that most other women have to deal with.
        The family duties that the majority of women encounter and the first female PM made sure she did not help in any way..

        • Ron Todd

          Most prime ministers could only get so far through having money and contacts.

          • terregles2

            The point is that as a woman she could not have reached the position that she did if she was not supported by a very wealthy man.

            Mrs Thatcher was not rich. She used the wealth that her husband had created to forge her political career. She married money.

            The year after Thatcher was elected as an MP her children were sent to boarding school. She used her husband’s wealth to pay for that and all her subsequent childcare expenses..

            When she became PM she did nothing to make it easier for other women to help them in their careers with better childcare etc. She particularly did nothing to encourage or support other women in politics.

            She was no friend to women in Britain.

            • Ron Todd

              What does more for women creating special privileges for them or improving the economy as a whole. As a man hard for me to judge.

              • terregles2

                Women have never asked for special privileges only equality of opportunity. The Equal Pay Act was only introduced in Britain in 1975

      • ProffessorPlum

        “Becoming first female PM Winning three general elections”

        Sorry. I meant things that benefitted the country and the people as a whole. I thought that might have been obvious.

        “Beating the miners while closing fewer pits than previous labour government.”

        Given the consequences and the fact that she had to break a 1974 agreement to do so I don’t see how that can count as an achievement. Britain had massive coal resources. Considering the price of oil today I would say her actions were very short sighted.

        “Getting a rebate from the EU”


        “getting the Falklands back.”

        I suppose so. Nothing special though is it?

      • terregles2

        Getting the Falklands back. It was actually the British army and navy that got the Falklands back. Thatcher was safe and sound in London. Quite easy to have a war if you are never near the front line.

        • Alex

          So all this talk about Blair having Iraqis’ blood on his hands is nonsense; it was the British army.

          • terregles2

            You are confusing two separate issues. Old people have always been happy to send young people out to die in war. Old Thatcher happily sent the forces into the Falklands. She would never have sent Carol or Mark.
            Old Blair happily sent young British men and women into Iraq he would never have sent Catherine ot Ewan. Cherie was crying over Ewen having trouble over obtaining a suitable rich flat in London. Can you imagine her permitting one of her children go to fight in Iraq.
            Two completly different issues. the point I was making was that once the troops have been sent in it is not the politicians who “win” the battle whatever that means. It is the troops who win not the politicians hiding in Westminster.

        • sd2933

          let’s not forget the sacrifice her own son made while her mother put ordinary British lads in the line of fire. I think he got lost in the desert with a French bird.

      • terregles2

        Beating the miners???? Oh…. the miners are they the same people who had their sons and daughters in the forces that Thatcher sent to the Falklands.?

        Or the same miners and whose parents and grandparents fought in two world wars.

        What did Thatcher do in the second world war. Much less than the queen she at least worked as a mechanic.

    • David Kravitz

      “Many people have written about ‘all her achievemants’ and I have asked many people to NAME ONE.

      Still waiting……..”
      The right to buy your council house.

      • ProffessorPlum

        “The right to buy your council house”

        And where were those in need of council housing supposed to go when all the council houses had been sold off?

        • sd2933

          the plan was that those who required council housing would have now been socially cleansed by the likes of ‘Dame’ Shirley Porter, the vanguard of the gerrymandering that brought her conviction and subsequent flight to the zionist state where that model of democracy is well enshrined.

          • terregles2

            Zionist…what are you on about????

      • sd2933

        the right to buy the council house you happened to live in also deprived future social tenants access to that accommodation. In fairness the same ‘right’ should have been extended to private tenants – with landlords taking the hit on the reduced selling price, not the taxpayer.

  • ProffessorPlum

    “That is not to dismiss her achievements or her significance, ”

    Many people have written about ‘all her achievemants’ and I have asked many people to NAME ONE.

    “It is true that Mrs Thatcher’s actions did not always honour that truth or make good its promise. Nevertheless it is surely something worth remembering and a truth that her successors might also contemplate.”

    Revolutionize politics, that would.

    • David Kravitz

      “Many people have written about ‘all her achievemants’ and I have asked many people to NAME ONE”
      The right to buy your council house.

      • terregles2

        Letting people buy council homes was alright. The money raised from the sale should however have gone towards building new homes. I was never in a council house I bought my home before Thatcher came to government just as all the people who lived in council houses were also free to do at that time.
        I now live in an expensive area of my city but now that there is no social housing people have to turn to private landlords.
        Private landlords have bought up some houses near me and this has been bad for my area. The tenants leave the gardens full of litter and don’t look after the houses. The landlords get the money so they don’t care.
        It now means that my tax money goes to pay housing benefits to rich landlords who are turning my area into a slum. Therefore Thatcher’s policy has made me worse off because the value of my house is dropping down all the time because of private landlords.

  • Jim Brotherton

    On American fascination with royal babies, I could care less than you can imagine.

  • CraigStrachan

    “Nevertheless I am an enthusiast for democracy. And I take that position, not because I believe majority opinion is inevitably right or true—indeed no majority can take away God-given human rights—but because I believe it most effectively safeguards the value of the individual, and, more than any other system, restrains the abuse of power by the few. And that is a Christian concept.”

    It’s a nonconformist Christian concept in particular.

    • terregles2

      Unfortunately it does not restrain the abuse of power in any significant way. One recent example was the Iraq war but we could list so many more.

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    >”Remembered now as a hymn to materialism, money and greed.” Only by liars and idiots.

  • Angus Ogg

    May she R.I.P (Rot In Perpetuity)

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      There is no need to describe your thinking in brackets.

    • Bill Kenny

      Dear Angus remember those who live in hate often inhabit a moral desert where they inevitably develop a bitter and toxic character that fetters their ability to act as a rational human being.

  • terregles2

    All those words from all the great men of the church. Can’t help thinking that if Jesus had turned up he would have been refused entry.

  • Charles Hedges

    Don’t forget her support for her son the war criminal. Or her hatred of Germans, the Irish and intellectuals.

    • HookesLaw

      You are safe then if she hated intellectuals.
      Who do you get to tie your shoe laces in the morning?

      You need to check on the definition of a war criminal. Its shocking that Sir Mark received a 4years suspended sentence in South Africa.

      • terregles2

        Is it not more shocking that his dealings had to be investigated in the first place.?

      • Charles Hedges

        Sir Mark should be in jail, and if he goes to the US he will be.

      • terregles2

        Utterly shocking that there were three ex criminals at the funeral. Amongst her great friends and admirers three jailbirds Lord Black, Lord Archer and Jonathan Aitken. What an embarrassment.

    • randomsausage

      So she didn’t hang aboot in the James Joyce pub in Bonn then?

    • terregles2

      Quite a few jailbird friends also at the funeral. Jonathan Aitken, Lord Archer and Lord Black. Lord help us if they are our superiors,