Thatcherism, Spirituality and Public Policy

In a guest post that takes a more reflective look than our typical, more empirically-minded writing, Owen Davis mulls over a relatively neglected side of Thatcher’s legacy.

Picture of Margaret Thatcher as PMNews of Margaret Thatcher’s death was received with a mixture of grief, relief and in some less tasteful cases, triumph and celebrations. My personal reaction was one of mild interest, veering on indifference. After all, it was surely only a matter of time before this 87 year old woman, whose latter years had been plagued with ill-health, would pass away.

British politicians were quick to make their views heard. The Prime Minister paid tribute to her “lion-hearted love for this country”, whilst the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, hailed the “extraordinary life and unique contribution of Margaret Thatcher”. There was certainly an air of the Oxford debating club ‘good show old chap’ about the proceedings. In fact, there was only one Labour politician who took the opportunity to say anything negative. Glenda Jackson launched a scathing attack on the “social, economic and spiritual damage” caused by Margaret Thatcher and the enduring legacy of Thatcherism.

Now anybody reading this blog will be all too familiar with the social and economic arguments against Thatcherism: the creation of a vast underclass through rapid deindustrialisation, the enormous growth in inequality and the well-documented negative impact of this on health, well-being and crime (amongst many other indicators) and the creation of an over-reliance on the financial industries which has led to a deeply fractured and unbalanced British economy. That is why it is the third aspect of Ms Jackson’s analysis, the “spiritual damage” caused by Thatcherism, which intrigued me the most and is one which merits further discussion.

A spiritual evaluation of Thatcher’s legacy

Qualitative shifts in society since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership can most easily be observed through surveys like British Social Attitudes (BSA). A snapshot of changes in attitudes over the past 25 years reveals how certain Thatcherite sentiments appear to have become more engrained in popular psyche. An obvious example of this is the hardened approach to the unemployed – a group most vilified under Thatcherism. According to the BSA, in 1983 46% of people thought unemployment benefits were too low and caused hardship, compared to 26% in 2007. Similarly, in 1983 35% thought benefit levels were ‘too high and discouraged job finding’, compared to 57% in 2007 (see here).

Is this what Ms Jackson meant when she referred to the ‘spiritual damage’ of Thatcherism – a hardening of attitudes towards one’s fellow man and a greater tendency to blame the individual for collective failings? Social scientists may be more inclined to describe this as a shift in normative rather than spiritual values and indeed perhaps this was what Glenda Jackson meant. She may have been evoking the idea of ‘spirit’ portrayed in Ken Loach’s recent film “The Spirit of ‘45”. In this sense ‘spiritual’ might have had nostalgic, as opposed to religious connotations and simply referred to the decline of the collectivist impulses of the British people.

However, it is worth considering Ms Jackson’s comments in the context of other societal changes that have occurred over the past thirty years. Research by Professor Michael King from University College London shows that the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ now represents a major strand of public opinion (20% of Britons, see here). What is more, the importance of spirituality has extended for many people to major areas of public life. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams remarks in his recent book ‘Faith in the Public Square’:

“The spiritual dimension of all sorts of things, from school education to business practice, is recognised more and more seriously” (2012: 85).

Returning again to the question of the spiritual damage that Ms Jackson accused Thatcherism of inflicting, there is in the broadest sense a spiritual argument against the promotion of a more unequal society. Indeed, conversely, the quest for greater equality has long been associated with ethical and spiritual righteousness. Champions of equality like Nelson Mandela stand out as figures of great moral worth. In religious traditions, equality is a value to which people are encouraged to aspire, following the examples of great spiritual leaders like Jesus Christ. All peoples are seen to be created in the image of God possessing souls of equal worth, thus religious followers are called upon to respect others and create conditions in which all can flourish.

I was struck by Robert de Vries’ recent post on Inequalities (see here) about the research into ‘infrahumanization’ – the denying or simplifying of emotional identities of certain social groups (the homeless, poor people, benefit claimants). In ‘spiritual’ terms this could be viewed as an attempt to denigrate the soul of another, thus inequalities of this kind may be seen as an affront not only to the individual but also to God.

But is it really possible for analysts in the fields of social and public policy to engage constructively with such ideas? If so, then why have they not received greater attention? There are undoubtedly many reasons why ‘spiritual public policy’ is rarely discussed. Many public policy analysts sit firmly in the Fabian tradition of using empirical evidence to promote structural change. However, with one in five Britons claiming some form of spiritual allegiance, might it not be time to engage seriously with theological arguments for policy interventions?


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2 Responses to Thatcherism, Spirituality and Public Policy

  1. davidakirby says:

    In a more equal and just society, it would become more rational and more natural to act in a way that promotes justice and equality; this is what I imagine that Glenda Jackson meant by a ‘spiritual’ change – simply that Thatcher had changed society in a way that made it more difficult to be just, and easier and more rational to be greedy and selfish. For example, the notion of ‘public service’ in professions such as health care and teaching has lost its importance as a motivation, to be replaced by remuneration and competition.

    In her dealings with the coal mining industry, Thatcher exposed the violent domination that is at the heart of ownership of the means of production. Of course she did not invent it, it was already there, but obscured by a veil of decency and respect which she was ruthless enough to strip away.

    There is no need for theological arguments to address this spiritual aspect of social change; there is a need for a moral argument; the assertion that a more materially equal society with more collective ownership of its assets is morally superior, just as childcare that involves nurture is morally superior to childcare that depends on violence.

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