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The Iron Lady reminds me of pontiffs past and present

Margaret Thatcher had her critics, Pope Francis can expect to have his too

By on Thursday, 11 April 2013

Baroness Thatcher (Photo: PA)

Baroness Thatcher (Photo: PA)

In the last couple of months there have been three world events: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the election of Pope Francis and now the death of Margaret Thatcher. All three are linked in different ways.

Watching the resignation of Pope Benedict unfold to a stunned Church made me compare it with the way Margaret Thatcher was forced out of the premiership by her own Parliamentary colleagues. It took rare courage and love of the Church for the Holy Father to admit that, having searched his conscience on the matter for many months, he did not have the strength of mind or body to continue as Pope.

Despite the intense debate about his decision at the time, I sense that it has been for the good: he has become a praying presence at the heart of the Vatican, an “older brother” for Pope Francis; while the latter has already begun to bring his personal charisma to his office: a warmth and simplicity of style that is beginning to appeal to all of us who are watching and listening to him.

But it is rare for someone to step down in humility from a position of great authority, whether in the Church or outside it. Watching the BBC programme about Margaret Thatcher on Monday evening, it was sad to see the humiliating end to her years at Number 10. Close colleagues had hinted to her during her third term that it might be time to step aside; she would have none of it. As one of them ruefully recollected, it simply wasn’t in her nature; in her view, if things were going badly, she had to sort them out; if they were going well, what was the point? So she stayed on – too long.

Yet she is also linked to our new Pope, partly because he is an Argentinean, a man whose country she fought over the sovereignty of the Falklands, and partly because of the saint linked to both of them: St Francis of Assisi. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis implied last year that the Falklands belonged to Argentina; well, he is a patriot and most of his countrymen will share his view; but it is also safe to say that as Pope he will adopt a neutral position on all such territorial questions. In her prime, Margaret Thatcher would certainly have handbagged him about it.

On the question of St Francis (and the prayer he did not actually compose), watching footage of Mrs Thatcher reciting some of its phrases outside Number 10 in 1979 made me wince. Now we know that it was a speech-writer who suggested it to her; whatever the impulse of those heady moments and despite her own deeply held Christian convictions, I think the prayer was not her style.

It would have been better to have chosen the more martial Kipling, who would have had an apt phrase for the hour. Now the words “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” have returned to haunt her memory, quoted as they are repeatedly by her critics. It is true that she was a deeply divisive figure, in death as in life – but what do people expect?

All strong leaders with a sense of mission and the conviction and clarity that go with it will make enemies. How could it be otherwise? Pope John Paul II upset traditionalists in the Church by not attending, as they saw it, to the liturgy. He also raised the ire of the liberals by refusing to countenance women priests. In other words, he was a divisive figure. Some think he should not be canonised, just as some think Baroness Thatcher does not deserve a public funeral.

And now Pope Francis, as a spiritual rather than a political leader, has taken the little poor man of Assisi as his patron. He will have his critics too: those who will think he has gone “too far” in one direction; those who will think he has not “gone far enough” in another. He has sent a telegram of condolence to David Cameron in which he “recalls the Christian values which underpinned [Margaret Thatcher’s] commitment to public service and to the promotion of freedom among the family of nations. Entrusting her soul to the mercy of God…the Holy Father invokes upon all whose lives she touched God’s abundant blessings.” I do hope George Galloway MP and Neil Kinnock, who don’t appear very pleased that Margaret Thatcher touched their lives, take note of this.

Some Catholics will argue about her “Christian values”, given her acceptance of legal abortion when in office. I would reply that she was blinkered here – but blinkered by her time, the goals she had set herself and her broad Church Anglicanism which had replaced the Methodism of her youth. Being staunchly pro-life in this country is largely, though not exclusively, a Catholic issue – and Margaret Thatcher was not a Catholic.

Finally, I have been struck by the many anecdotes which mention Thatcher’s personal kindness, remembered by the ordinary people who served her or crossed her path; they recall the way she never stood on ceremony, always remembered their names and was genuinely concerned about their welfare. I haven’t read anyone quoting Kipling these last few days, but his famous lines in “If”, “If you can…walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch”, must surely apply to her memory.