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Was Thatcherism Catholic?


Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 04/09/13

Catholic Social Teaching supports private initiative and limited government

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.

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