Afflicted with a severe case of undergraduate Anglophilia, I went to study at Oxford the year Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I continued to live in England for the next twenty five years. Living through the Thatcher years and beyond, I saw the effects of her policies on ordinary English life.
When I arrived in England I was struck by the poverty in the country. Cars were comparatively few and old. Fashions seemed to be shabby tweeds with patches. The dentist office I went to looked like it was equipped from an old Frankenstein film, and the dentist looked like Igor
. Hotels advertised that their rooms had hot and cold running water. What both?? Inside?? Clearly such things were modern luxuries worth advertising. Food was simple, people had to queue for everyday commodities, and I can remember my surprise at reading an announcement on a bulletin board in the public library stating that financial assistance was available for people to convert their outside toilets to indoor facilities. What! People in England still had outhouses?
In many ways I was charmed by this England. It was what I had envisioned when I moved to the “city of dreaming spires”--the home of my heroes, C.S.Lewis and the Inklings
. I liked the shabby, down at heel clothes, the friendly sense of “muddling through” that the English exhibited--their terminal good manners, endless drinking of tea, self deprecating humor and nostalgic wit. I was fascinated by the class wars between the unions and management and was intrigued to learn the intricacies and eccentricities of the different English regional rivalries and class systems.
Margaret Thatcher changed all that. Her premiership is often stereotyped as being of the rich and for the rich. Her suppression of the unions in the battle with the coal miners, her “privatization” of state owned industries and her dismantling of the state owned housing is all portrayed by the left as a conspiracy of rich capitalists. Thatcher is blamed for destroying lives and livelihoods by eliminating jobs and destroying the secure social structures. She is blamed for handing the keys of England to the super rich who could afford to buy up the state owned companies.
Surely Thatcherism could never be aligned with Catholic social teaching
? After all, we all know don’t we, that the keystone of Catholic social teaching is the encyclical Rerum Novarum
which calls for the freedom of workers to associate in unions and for fair wages for workers. How could Thatcher--the scourge of the unions--be in line with Catholic social teaching? Rerum Novarum
has often been hi-jacked by the left to make it sound like the Catholic Church is left-leaning. It is true that the “preferential option for the poor” (which is part of Catholic social teaching) has been used as a slogan for the endorsement of left leaning political and economic policies.
However, on second glance, Margaret Thatcher’s core policies and values were completely consistent with Rerum Novarum
. We must remember that Margaret Thatcher was never from the aristocratic, monied, ruling class. She was the daughter of a hard working, Methodist
grocer. She would have claimed that her policies--far from being a burden to ordinary people--were a gift to ordinary people. When she sold off council houses to the working class people who lived in them, she was pulling the plug on big government in favor of private ownership of property by ordinary people. This principle is in perfect harmony with the principles of Rerum Novarum
which asserts that private property is a fundamental human right.
When Margaret Thatcher sold off the government utilities
which were heavily subsidized by the taxes of ordinary people, she did not simply sell the companies to rich investors. Shares in the companies were sold to ordinary people through widely advertised programs which made share holding possible for the very people those customers were serving. Furthermore, the employees of the companies were the first to be able to purchase shares. My father in law--who worked for British Telecom
--still does very well out of the shares he was given as a telecom employee.
Thatcher did not simply sell the companies to well heeled foreign investors. Instead she pulled the plug on big government by selling the companies to ordinary people--the customers and workers. Ownership by ordinary people is one of the core values of Catholic social teaching, and rather than the companies being owned either by fat cat financiers or fat cat government aparatchiks, Thatcher came up with the plan that through share holding ordinary people would own the companies.
It is true that Margaret Thatcher’s policies eliminated many jobs in the traditional workplace of factories and heavy industry. It is also true that her policies created an enormous new wave of opportunities in the emerging service industries, the financial sector, new educational opportunities and in the new technologies. During the twenty five years I lived in England I saw huge improvements in the standard of living for the majority of ordinary people. An old way of life perished, but there were many advantages to the New Britain. The old aristocracy may have crumbled, but so did the old working class. New opportunities arose for those who wished to take them. Ordinary people lost jobs, but many ordinary people got positive new careers, and chances they never would have had before.
Catholic social teaching is for the little guy. It is against big government, and this was the core value at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s policies. Her opposition to big government is best seen in her stance against--along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II--to the communist regime in Russia. Communism was everything Thatcher and her allies opposed. It was the supreme example of the big government they wished to demolish in favor of the common man.
Catholic social teaching is against big government, but it is also against big business. Unfortunately, big business did not take as great a hit under Thatcher’s policies as big government did. Economic freedom and the forces of the free market are the best policies for helping ordinary people, but they also provide the best opportunity for greed to flourish, for unscrupulous employers to abuse workers, for rapacious financiers to accumulate vast wealth at other’s expense, and for financial fraud to flourish.
While Britain changed dramatically in the twenty five years I lived there, and much of the change was for the better, much of it was not. Too often the newly disenfranchised working class drifted into an unemployed and unemployable underclass. Those who aspired to better things took the opportunities available and joined a rising middle class who too often rushed to embrace a vulgar consumerism. I saw Britain smudged by all the worst things from the United States--the shopping malls, blatant consumerism, bland suburbs, big box stores, fast food and the entertainment culture.
Along with the new wealth that Thatcherism encouraged, was a new materialism. Greed flourished and with it all the grotesques side effects of over indulgence and abuse of others. I watched the English drift into a non-thinking default atheism as a new generation swallowed the bait of snazzy affluence. The result of Margaret Thatcher’s policies is an England at the beginning of the twenty first century which is, on the one hand, a society glutted on crass materialism, and on the other hand, marred by the self gratification of an indigent welfare-dependent underclass.
Blame for the sick state of modern Britain, however, can hardly be laid at the feet of Margaret Thatcher. The thrifty, hard working daughter of the Grantham grocer believed that along with individual freedom came increased opportunity and increased opportunity, if taken, would lead to increased wealth, and with increased wealth came a demand for increased responsibility.
Any society or economic model is only as good as the individuals in that society. Margaret Thatcher worked for a Britain that was as good, hard working, honest and justly rewarded as she thought the English deserved. The English drift into crass consumerism and dependent indigence was not a failure of Thatcher’s values, but a failure of the English to understand and adopt those values fully.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a former priest of the Church of England. He now serves as a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. Browse his books and connect with him at dwightlongenecker.com.