Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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1978 May 16 Tu
Margaret Thatcher

Article for Daily Telegraph ("The moral basis of a free society")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Article
Venue: -
Source: Daily Telegraph, 16 May 1978
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Item listed by date of publication.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1252
Themes: Civil liberties, Conservatism, Economy (general discussions), Education, Family, Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Health policy, Labour Party & socialism, Religion & morality, Society, Social security & welfare

The moral basis of a free society

When the rector of St Lawrence Jewry in the City asked me to give a lunch-time talk on the connection between my religious beliefs and my convictions as a politician, I did not expect that I would be widely regarded as having instituted a new and dramatic change in political manners. However, some commentators heralded as a staggering novelty the recognition that politics has, or ought to have, a religious dimension, though our ancestors would have taken that for granted.

Critics, on the other hand, saw my little excursion into theology as proof of a deep-laid design to capture Christianity for the Conservative cause, to suggest that it was impossible to be a faithful and well instructed Christian with-out being a Conservative. In fact, far from implying anything of the kind, I expressly and repeatedly repudiated the idea. The Gospels tell us very little about political systems, and the Old Testament very little that is directly relevant to our immediate political and economic preoccupations. They give us a view of the nature of man and his relationship to God and society.

It is for us as individuals, set in the context of this ever-changing and sinful world, to apply that view in the light of our own reading of history and the circumstances of our day. There is no reason to suppose that all Christians are likely to arrive at identical conclusions. That is why it would be bad for politics and for the Church in this country for a “Christian political party” to be set up.

Of course, there is a long and honourable tradition of Christian political radicalism. There are those, like the late Archbishop Temple for instance, who have interpreted the mediaeval canonical teaching against usury and in favour of the “just price” as a perpetually valid condemnation of modern capitalism. There have been writers like R. H. Tawney who have condemned “the acquisitive society” by arguments which plainly sprang from a Christian culture.

I respect the integrity of such men, while disputing their conclusions, which seem to me to rest on a total misunderstanding of how the modern capitalist order works. I would, however, also expect Christian Socialists, in all humility, fairness and tolerance to recognise that there is a Christian Conservative tradition as well.

One should think twice before condemning any set of political ideas as unChristian, but there are some political philosophies which can and must be so denounced. To my mind, there is no intellectually honest means of building a bridge between Marxist materialism and Christianity (which is, of course, quite a different thing from saying that Marxist and Christian States cannot live together.) The denial of the morality of personal choice, the reduction of history to a predetermined conflict between classes wholly shaped (as Marxists contend) by their role in the economic process—these are an out-right denial of the Christian faith. The fruits of that denial—the treatment of individuals as mere instruments, contempt for human personality, personal cruelty and the subjection of learning, the arts and law to the directions of Government—are things which I believe it is the duty of every Christian to condemn and fight to the best of his ability.

Beyond this, it seems to me that our Christian tradition has bequeathed to politics two great and permanently important ideas, and that almost the whole of political wisdom consists in getting these two ideas into the right relationship with each other.

The first is the notion that we are all members one of another. It is expressed most vividly in the Christian concept of the Church as the Body of Christ; from this we learn the importance of interdependence and the truth that the individual achieves his own fulfilment only in service to others and to God.

The second, and equally important, Christian contribution to political thinking, however, is that the individual is an end in himself, a responsible moral being endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil.

One of the great errors of our time is to equate the community aspect of our lives with the power of Government exercised through bureaucracy. It is one thing to say that we all have a duty to look after our less fortunate fellows, at home and abroad, and quite another to imply that this duty can always be most efficiently performed by delegating it to the State. Ordinary human beings will make vast sacrifices for the well-being of those near and dear to them; by contrast, what the State will do for what it calls “the socially disadvantaged” is limited by what politicians regard at any moment as “the taxable capacity of the community.” Hence the paradox that in a society which must even now be regarded by historical standards as fairly well-off, provision for health and education is as deplorably inadequate as it is in Britain today.

I believe this is largely the result of our having stripped the family, the fundamental unit of society, of so many of its rights and duties. It is time that we considered again the springs of human love and charity and made [end p1] sure that benevolent legislation does not dry them up.

Similarly, my belief in free competitive economic enterprise does not rest solely or even mainly on arguments of economic efficiency, though, heaven knows, these are cogent enough. It rests essentially on the view that the free market is the only safe way of ensuring that productive effort is directed towards supplying what individuals actually want, and in a way which secures the dignity and independence of the worker.

What, then, are the functions of coercive Government? As I see it, they are primarily to establish a clear, simple and rigorously enforced system of rules to be both imposed and obeyed by the State, within which individuals can pursue their own legitimate private ends; and, within that framework, to secure, by generous but discriminating public aid, that no one is allowed to fall below a tolerable limit of welfare or is deprived of the chance of developing his or her talents to the full.

For the Christian there can be no social or political panaceas, no easy escapes from personal responsibility achieved by collectivising guilt or virtue. The true ends of temporal life lie beyond it, and, though the tyrannical State may diminish virtue, the benevolent State cannot procure it.

Yet there is one sphere in which the State has a positive role. As a nation, we are heirs to a Christian culture and a Christian moral tradition. I still believe that the vast majority of parents want their children to enter into that inheritance. Accordingly, I hold it to be the business of Government to ensure (though with proper respect for the consciences of all who dissent or who belong to another religion) that our schools shall be places in which Christian belief and morality are taught. This is not indoctrination, merely a practical recognition of the truth that, while a mature person may reject the faith in which he has been brought up, a child will find it difficult to acquire any faith at all without some instruction in the discipline of belief and practice.

True, there are loyal supporters of the Conservative cause today who would describe themselves as agnostic humanists. To my mind, such people are living recklessly on the dwindling spiritual capital of our Christian culture. I do not believe that even the free and ordered society which as a party we are trying to foster can satisfy the deepest human needs, for this is beyond the scope of politics. I do not think that even this society will be able to sustain itself unless it keeps its religious foundations in good repair.

This is a personal view and I offer it as nothing more or less than that.