In 1978 Catholic Herald editor Richard Dowden had an in-depth interview with Margaret Thatcher. We reproduce it in full here
I was given directions by the porter in the main lobby of the House of Commons and found my own way to the office of the Leader of the Opposition at the far end of the building.
This caused some upset, for security reasons, but the way to Mrs Thatcher’s private room is complex. The maze-like corridors are identical and so are the panelled and green-carpeted rooms which lead off them, though one I accidentally turned into is a rather bleak and utilitarian kitchen.
The inner sanctum is formal but relaxed, and as I went in Mrs Thatcher dressed all in blue, rose from her desk remarking that we would never get through all the questions I had sent her in the time.
“Rather too many than too few,” I said, but I needn’t have worried, because for the next half hour I didn’t get a word in edgeways. I had submitted some 24 questions in advance, as she had requested, ranging from her own experience growing up as a Methodist to specific political questions about Northern Ireland, race and immigration, abortion and Third World aid.
Mrs Margaret Thatcher was born and brought up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where her father, Alfred Roberts, ran a grocer’s shop. He was deeply committed in local politics and was much sought after as a lay preacher.
The two girls, Margaret and her elder sister Muriel, had a strict religious upbringing. Sundays meant going to church three times and not being allowed to go to the cinema or play games. They were taught what was right and what was wrong, that cleanliness was next to godliness and the importance of discipline and duty.
I asked her what memories she had of those early years in the Methodist Church.
“Methodism isn’t just a religion for Sundays – no faith is only a faith for Sundays. There were a lot of things during the week which one attended. Methodism is a pretty practical faith; there were the mothers’ sewing meetings and the guilds for young people.
“It’s also evangelical, and does a lot of missionary work overseas. The visiting missionaries, some of them from South America, some from Africa and India, would come back and tell you of the kind of work they were doing.
“I must say I was very much attracted to the work they did because they really could see results.”
Although she was married to Denis Thatcher 27 years ago in Wesley’s own chapel in the City of London, she has since moved towards Anglicanism and I asked her about this shift.
“You know, John Wesley would of course say that he was a member of the Church of England, and the service he believed in was the Church of England service; but it was too high for the kind of evangelical work he was doing.
“Methodism is the most marvellous evangelical faith and there is the most marvellous love and feeling for music in the Methodist Church which I think is greater than in the Anglican Church. But you sometimes feel the need for a slightly more formal service and perhaps a little bit more formality in the underlying theology too.
“So throughout my life I have felt the need for both things, to some extent for the informality, for the works you do; but always I found myself groping out for more of the actual teaching of the religious basis. As I say, I went for something a little more formal. I suppose it’s first one’s belief and then one’s background.”
She denies that this move was in any way a rebellion. The need for the formal and the evangelical came to rest for her in the Church of England, “but not the real High Church”, she adds.
I asked Mrs Thatcher what she thought about the current debate on the ordination of women. She had to think about this one, and made a couple of rather non-committal remarks to start with. It wasn’t on the list of questions.
In the end she said: “I don’t think that you should stop it, but you have to think very deeply about it. After all, women do so much work; no one ever stopped them being missionaries. But you can’t go faster than the adherents of the Church will take; you can’t in the Catholic Church either.
“What you do has got to be somehow in touch with and in tune with the times, otherwise you cause friction and you mustn’t cause friction if you have a positive message.”
I had asked Mrs Thatcher whether she thought the stress the Conservatives put on independence and individualism really would help those poorest in our society.
She answered this in her explanation of her own beliefs about society, government and religions values which, it seems, grew out of those talks the missionaries gave when she was young.
“If you are faced with the real problems of poverty and ignorance and people don’t know how best to grow crops, you’ve got a pretty simple, straightforward task because you’ve got to help, and help in practical terms.
“Because while you’re teaching them religion you’ve got to recognise that they are not very likely to receive it or understand it unless it does mean something and enables them to do things for themselves.
“So you replace poverty by a better standard of living out of people’s own efforts, because everyone’s got talent and ability, and you teach them what we regard as necessary to life, and you teach them religion as well.
“So when you’ve relieved poverty and ignorance and disease, if you are not a Christian you think that sorts out the problems of the world. You and I know it doesn’t, because there is still the real religious problem in the choice between good and evil. Choice is the essence of ethics.
“Nowadays there really is no primary poverty left in this country. In Western countries we are left with the problems which aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character—personality defect.
“Why do people turn to drugs? Why do some terrorists come from really good backgrounds in the sense that they were taught the right things and had no shortage of money?
“And here you have the fundamental basis of human nature—there’s good and evil in everyone. The fundamental purpose on earth is to impove your own human nature and disposition. You can only do that by doing things for others.
“Even then, when you’ve been taught all the right things, all the best things, it doesn’t mean to say you will do them.
“Every person, whether high or low born, whether they get to high places or they have a very simple straightforward life, earning an honest wage for an honest job, each has that human dignity, each has that choice, their responsibility within their knowledge and background to make that choice.
“If you deny that personal responsibility you are denying the religious basis of life—that’s the difference between me and a Marxist. The values by which you and I live are not values given by the State.
“Christianity is about more than doing good works. It is a deep faith which expresses itself in your relationship to God. It is a sanctity, and no politician is entitled to take that away from you or to have what I call corporate State activities which only look at interests as a whole.
“So, you’ve got this double thing which you must aim for in religion, to work to really know your faith and to work it out in everyday life. You can’t separate one from the other. Good works are not enough because it would be like trying to cut a flower from its root; the flower would soon die because there would be nothing to revive it.”
Mrs Thatcher’s defence of the individual against the State is in her eyes founded on a Christian concept of man.
“The basis of democracy”, she says, “is morality, not majority voting. It is the belief that the majority of people are good and decent and that there are moral standards which come not from the State but from elsewhere.”
But how far does this individualism go? I asked her if she thought laws about killing should be simply left to the individual.
“The law is to regulate what you must not do to one another. My freedom must be regulated by your freedom. My freedom to hit out stops at your chin.”
As she said this she clenched her fist and smiled delightfully. What about the deviant, I asked, the man who isn’t “decent and good”? Shouldn’t society behave in a Christian way towards him and forgive him?
“There are two things. First there is reform, then I’m afraid there has to be some retribution for society, there has to be some deterrent, otherwise people would not be able to carry on their life.
“I can well remember listening to a sermon just before Oxford Assizes where the preacher said that certainly retribution is a part of the Christian Faith.
“We have to make secular judgments. It doesn’t mean to say that we have to make ultimate judgments. You have to have a strong rule of law, but the moment you get so many laws you’re fundamentally denying choice …”
Mrs Thatcher was so shocked that I should ask what a Conservative Government would do about the rising rate of marital breakdowns that she told me so five times.
Her voice lost its soft emphatic earnestness and took on the attacking stridency she uses against the Labour Front Bench at Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons. I got the clear message that as far as she is concerned this is a personal matter—nothing to do with governments.
“Governments aren’t Big Brother. If you have a Minister for Marriage what is your view of people? If you treat people as so many pawns on a chessboard you have no Christian base, no religious base, no religion at all. It’s as if the whole of religion had come to: ‘What can governments do about these things?’”
It was of course the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the suggestion about a Minister for Marriage but I wasn’t able to point this out.
“What can I do about the rising rate of marital breakdown? What am I expected to do? Go into the houses? To say that if you are living a violent, drunken life you may not divorce?
“I have seen terrible circumstances in houses. You try to teach a child religion and by saying ‘God is like a Father’ and they look at their own father and they say ‘gosh’.
“Where you’ve had someone really violent and drunken you can’t begin to teach them that. It may not be right for the parents to divorce, that may be a religious view which you take, but it is certainly right for them to separate so that the children aren’t brought up in that terrible background where they have never been able to trust an adult.”
I suggested that there was a connection between marital breakdown and social conditions such as bad housing, and that these were presumably areas the Government could do something about.
Mrs Thatcher said she didn’t necessarily agree that all the problems were environmental, but she said it in a way which conceded that she thought some were.
“But then how do you explain that so many of the problems arise from those who are brought up with real middle-class backgrounds?” she went on, “In crime? In terrorism? Marxism didn’t come from the masses, Marxism came from the intellectuals.
“Of course it’s your duty to relieve poverty, disease and ignorance, but what do you call bad housing? I’m appalled when I come across it but I’m equally appalled at some of the modern housing. They’ll never make what I call homes.
“How in the world can we take rows of horizontal houses on the streets and imagine they’ll be the same when you put them up vertically? What we ought to have done is to knock two into one so that you keep the community together and modernise them but keep some of the character.”
One of the things I noticed emerging in the interview was the way in which Mrs Thatcher never mentioned the Conservative Party and she mentioned the Labour Party only once. Yet she continually attacked Marxism, terrorism and totalitarianism.
I asked her if she really felt Britain was in danger of becoming a Marxist society.
“You look at the number of regulations that we have now—that’s why I was really rather shocked when you said ‘What are you going to do about marital breakdown?’ You see? You go back and read Orwell’s 1984 … Big Brother, the State.
“It’s really like a nurse mothering a patient with sympathy. A good nurse will say ‘Now come on, you’ve been very ill, but you’ve got to try to get up’.
“If a nurse just smothers a patient with sympathy and says ‘Oh you just stay in bed’, instead of saying ‘Now come on make the effort, you can do it’, which do you think produces the best human being?
“It’s like a good teacher who makes demands on the children or like training a tennis player. It has political connotations too.
“So many people in politics today judge others by how much of other people’s money they can spend. You have some of my opponents getting up and saying:
‘I’m all for spending more money on this that or the other’.
“And I say ‘Yes. How much of your own money are you prepared to spend on your personal charities?’ Virtue is not to be judged by compulsory legislation. A collective conscience is only the sum of individual consciences.”
Abortion, I said to Mrs Thatcher, was a subject of great concern to Catholics. What was her attitude to it in principle?
“The abortion law is only related to the early months and I voted for abortion under controlled conditions.
“I’m perfectly prepared to have the Act amended along the lines of the Select Committee recommendations because I think that it’s operating in a slightly more lax way than was intended, but I’m not prepared to abolish it completely.
“Abortion only applies to the very, very early days, but the idea that it should be used as a method of birth control I find totally abhorrent.”
Mrs Thatcher accepted that we differed on this subject, and said that while Catholics believed that as soon as the ovum was fertilised you had a human being, she believed that after a few months of pregnancy the foetus took on the characteristics of a human being.
Even then, she said “you may have to take the life of the child in order to save the life of the mother, but that is a medical judgment.”
What about the future of the abortion issue in the House of Commons? I asked Mrs Thatcher.
“It is not a party political thing at all. We have so much private time both for discussion and legislation, but no one has taken it up this time.”
I asked Mrs Thatcher about the growing concern among Catholics in Northern Ireland that a Conservative government would mean a return to a Unionist government at Stormont.
She said that before discussing Northern Ireland she wanted to make it clear that she did not see it as a religious problem. She stressed this.
“There are certain human rights which I think we got right during our time in office,” she said. “You cannot differentiate between people on the basis of religion or colour.”
But what would a Conservative government do to encourage Catholics to take part in government in Northern Ireland? I asked.
“I am very anxious to get local government going again, but I know the degree of mistrust and suspicion and the ease with which people’s feelings can be worked upon over there. You have to work at life. There aren’t any easy solutions.”
We turned to Third World aid. Would the Conservatives continue the Labour Government’s priority of giving aid to the poorest, or would they tie more aid to the interests of British industry and British foreign policy?
Mrs Thatcher said the present policy didn’t work. You couldn’t be sure that the money reached its destination.
“You always teach people to help themselves, and when you get famine and poverty of course you help to relieve it; but it isn’t any answer merely to provide a meal for this week.
“The vast majority of your aid must go to helping them how to live. Help them to help themselves. Unless you do that you’re not going to find any permanent solution to the problem, nor do you give them the maximum dignity to which they are entitled.
But was Britain’s aid to be directed primarily at helping the donors or the recipients? I asked.
“I well remember one or two people in my home town. If you bankrupt yourself by wishing to be over-generous to charities, everyone thinks you’re a fool.
And they are quite right, because if a person can’t afford to keep himself he can’t afford to keep his neighbour.
“It’s no earthly good wanting to be so grand that you can give everything to everyone so that they think you’re a hell of a chap. You obviously have your own duty to your neighbour, your own people and you spare a little bit over for the neighbour you can’t see.”
It certainly wouldn’t help the poorer countries, Mrs Thatcher said, if the wealth-producing mechanisms in the West were destroyed, and there was nothing wrong if we in the West got some of the work building the machinery for their development. That helped to create the greater wealth.
I asked her about the policy of allowing more imports from developing countries into Britain.
“We really keep a pretty open door,” she said. “We have been very generous. You’ve only got to look in the advertisement pages of the Sunday papers to know how much comes in from underdeveloped countries. Of course we have to have a limit. It wouldn’t help them to have unemployment here.”
Should there be human rights clauses in aid agreements? I asked her. But she said it couldn’t be done. Why not? I asked. All you had to do was say you can’t have any more aid if you keep these men locked up in prison.
“And how does that help people who are not in prison who are trying to live decent, human lives? How does it help some of the millions? It’s a nice idea but it’s not enforceable.
She admitted, however, that the line had to be drawn with people like Idi Amin. “No I would not give aid to Idi Amin because how am I to know it would not be used for terrorist purposes? But if I were asked to give money for the work of the Church in Uganda, yes.”
I asked Mrs Thatcher if she agreed with Edward Norman’s Reith Lectures which claimed that the Churches were becoming too political. She returned to what is the core of her theology—the Church must teach people how to live, not give them a blueprint of what to do.
Christianity is more than good works. A Christian must never feel that if only you get the material things right, everything in the garden will be lovely. It was a theme she had stressed many times in our talk.
“I have been very distressed with some of the World Council of Churches’ decisions to give money to organisations which seem to me are terrorist organisations, which are prepared to kill and maim innocent men and women to pursue their ends.
“I was never taught anything in religion like that. I was taught that sometimes war is a lesser evil. The Rhodesian guerrillas are not liberation movements: they are terrorist, they are prepared to kill and maim innocent men and women.
“I am dismayed, and I will speak out against it whenever I come up against it. It is not Christian. It denies each man and woman. The moment you start to say in ordinary life ‘The end justifies the means’—no.”
I asked Mrs Thatcher whether she had a favourite saint, or whether any particular religious personality had influenced her. She mentioned C. S. Lewis for his interpretations of Gospel themes in everyday life, and Cardinal Suenens—”a wonderful person”.
She met Pope Paul last year. “No photograph or television can ever capture the personality and atmosphere,” she said. “If you say goodness and purity, if you put the words down, they just don’t mean what the feeling meant.”
What Mrs Thatcher picks on in the men of religion she admires is the ability to incorporate what she sees as the two aspects of religion—”the interpretation of religion, and the action, the good works”.
Time was running out—religious education?
“I’m passionate for it, and I would not alter the clause of the 1944 Education Act. Some of the youngsters will never learn if they are not taught at school.”
Assemblies as well?
“Yes, I do believe in a collective act of worship, though parents can withdraw their children if they want to.
Time was up. An American senator was waiting for an audience. But there were still the questions on race and immigration which we hadn’t dealt with. The rights of Commonwealth citizens already living here would not be affected by any legislation on nationality – that at least she managed to tell me as I left, almost instead of a goodbye.