The Virtue of a Nation

Written by Margaret Thatcher


Embargoed until 1315. Margaret Thatcher was interrupted at the beginning of her speech by protesters from the Young Communist League who chanted “Jobs not words” and “Thatcher Out” for five minutes or so, before being led away by the police. Before resuming Margaret Thatcher commented, to applause: “Now you see why I fight these people”.  Coverage in The Times of the speech, and the protest, can be read from this link.

I: Introduction

Thank you Rector, for inviting me back to your church and giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts on the subject of your Lent Service—The Spirit of the Nation.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when traditionally Christians begin a period of thoughtfulness about their relationship with God and how they are trying to serve Him here on earth. It is therefore fitting that on this occasion we consider some of the things which have made our nation flourish in the past and some of the challenges we face today.

My theme will be that the virtue of a nation is only as great as the virtue of the individuals who compose it. [loud interruptions begin, words impossible to make out; MT pauses, looking on impassively, while a group of younger people is led away, still shouting]

Now you see why I fight these people. [loud applause]

Two years ago in this church, I spoke as both a Christian and a politician about how I found my religious convictions affecting the way I approached the responsibility of Government.

Since then I have been, as it were, called to higher service! My approach to my present responsibilities remains the same as it was then, and I am indeed thankful that I was brought up in a Christian family and learned the message of the Christian faith.

This afternoon, I want to consider some of the characteristics of our way of life which have stood our people in such good stead in times past.

John Newton preached a sermon exactly two hundred years ago in a City church only a step away from this one.

In the course of it he said:

“Though the occasion will require me to take [end p1] some notice of our public affairs, I mean not to amuse you with what is usually called a political discourse.”

I too, Rector, will endeavour to keep to this self-denying ordinance.

Part Two: Man as a Moral Being and the Nation.

The concept of the nation is at the heart of Old Testament Judaism and one which those who wrote the New Testament accepted. But there is an even more fundamental idea which is also common to both—the idea of personal moral responsibility. It is to individuals that the Ten Commandments are addressed. In the statements, “honour thy father and thy mother” , “thou shalt not steal” , “though shalt not bear false witness” , and so on, the “thou” to whom these resounding imperatives are addressed is you and me.

In the same way, the New Testament is preoccupied with the individual, with his need for forgiveness and for the Divine strength which comes to those who sincerely accept it.

Of course, we can deduce from the teachings of the Bible principles of public as well as private morality; but, in the last resort, all these principles refer back to the individual in his relationships to others. We must always beware of supposing that somehow we can get rid of our own moral duties by handing them over to the community; that somehow we can get rid of our own guilt by talking about “national” or “social” guilt. We are called on to repent our own sins, not each others’ sins.

So each person is all-important in the Christian view of life and the universe. But human beings have social needs as well. So it is that, in the course of history, the family, the neighbourhood and the nation come into being.

All these communities have certain things in common. However they grew up, they are held together by mutual dependence, by the experience which their members have in common, by common customs and belief.

They all need rules to enable them to live together harmoniously, and the rules must be backed by some kind of authority, however gently and subtly exercised. The nation is but an enlarged family. Because of its traditions, and the mutual love and loyalty which bind its members together, it should ideally need little enforcement to maintain its life. But alas, because of man’s imperfection, evil is ever present, and the innocent must be protected from its ravages. [end p2]

So the first and in a sense the most important point I have to make to you is this. We must never think of individual freedom and the social good as being opposed to each other; we must never suppose that where personal liberty is strong, society will be weak and impoverished, or that where the nation is strong the individual will necessarily be in shackles.

The wealth of nations, the defence of national freedom, and the well being of society—all these depend on the faith and exertions of men and women. It is an old and simple truth, but it is sometimes forgotten in political debate.

But what of the common beliefs and habits which hold this British nation of ours together? There was, of course, a time when the Christian religion was the only permitted form of worship in our land. Today we live in what is called a “plural society” , one in which many different traditions of belief exist alongside each other and also alongside other more recent fashions—those of total disbelief or even nihilism. No doubt we have absorbed much from other systems of belief and contributed much to them. The change, however, has also brought its dilemmas, not least for the legislator.

We now have to concern ourselves not only with how Christians should behave towards each other within the framework of the nation, but with how they should seek to organise the nation’s life in a way that is fair and tolerant towards those who do not accept the Christian message. What I am suggesting to you today, however, is that even though there are considerable religious minorities in Britain, most people would accept that we have a national way of life and that it is founded on Biblical principles.

Part Three: The Values of This Nation

As we emerged from the twilight of medieval times, when for many life was characterised by tyranny, injustice and cruelty, so we became what one historian has described as “the people of a book and that book was the Bible” . (J.R. Green). What he meant, I think, was that this nation adopted albeit gradually—a system of government and a way of living together which reflected the values implicit in that Book. We acknowledged as a nation that God was the source of our strength and that the teachings of Christ applied to our national as well as our personal life. There was, however, a considerable gap between the precept and the practice. Even when men had become free to speak for themselves, to invent, to experiment and to lay the foundations of what became known as the Industrial Revolution, considerable blotches remained on the canvas of our national life. [end p3]

It took the vision and patience of men like Lord Shaftesbury, and William Wilberforce, to convince Parliament that it was inconsistent for a nation whose life was based on Christ’s teachings, to countenance slave labour, children and women working in the mines and criminals locked up in degrading conditions. These leaders were motivated first and foremost by their Christian beliefs. It is also significant that most of the great philanthropists who set up schools and hospitals did so because they saw this as part of their Christian service for the people of the nation. Indeed, something of that same vision can be seen today. Wherever there are refugees or suffering or poverty in the world, there you find Christians working to relieve pain, to provide comfort, hope and practical help.

The spirit of our nation also includes some clear convictions about such things as fairplay which we regard as almost a religion in itself, and bullying which we loathe.

Perhaps Kipling put it best in one of his poems called “Norman and Saxon” set in A.D. 1100:

“My Son” , said the Norman Baron, “I am dying, and you will be heir

To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for my share

When we conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.

But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:-

“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite. But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.

When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own,

And grumbles ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.” .

This sense of fair play is based on the acceptance by the majority in the nation of some moral absolutes which underpin our social and commercial relationships. In other words, we believe that just as there are physical laws which we break at our peril so there are moral laws which, if we flout them, will lead to personal and national decline. [end p4]

If we as a nation had accepted, for instance, that violence, stealing and deception were plausible activities, then our moral fibre would soon have disintegrated.

There is one other characteristic of our nation which is, I think, worth mentioning: we have always had a sense that work is not only a necessity, it is a duty, and indeed a virtue. It is an expression of our dependence on each other. Work is not merely a way of receiving a pay packet but a means whereby everyone in the community benefits and society is enriched. Creating wealth must be seen as a Christian obligation if we are to fulfil our role as stewards of the resources and talents the Creator has provided for us.

These characteristics of our nation, the acknowledgement of the Almighty, a sense of tolerance an acknowledgement of moral absolutes and a positive view of work, have sustained us in the past. Today they are being challenged. Although we are still able to live on the spiritual capital passed down to us, it is self-deceiving to think we can do so for ever. Each generation must renew its spiritual assets if the integrity of the nation is to survive,

Today, in spite of the work of the churches, I suspect that only a minority acknowledge the authority of God in their lives. Perhaps that is why we have turned to the state to do so many things which in the past were the prerogative of the family: why crimes of violence are increasing, and a few people are even suggesting that murder can be justified on the grounds that it is political—a view which must be abhorrent to Christians. Furthermore, the respect for private and public property seems to be diminishing and outside this City we can no longer assume that a man’s word is always his bond.

Ethics and Economics

In terms of ethics and national economics, I should like also to refer to what I believe is an evil, namely sustained inflation. For over thirty years the value of our currency has been eroding. [Beginning of section checked against BBC News Report 1800 4 March 1981.] It is an insidious evil because its effects are slow to be seen and relatively painless in the short run. Yet it has a morally debilitating influence on all aspects of our national life. It reduces the value of savings and therefore thrift, it undermines financial agreements, it stimulates hostility between workers and employers over matters of pay, it encourages debt and it diminishes the prospects of jobs. And that’s why I put its demise at the top of my list of economic priorities. It is, in my view, a moral issue not just an economic one. End of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 1800 4 March 1981. [end p5]

The second and equally great human and economic problem is the level of unemployment which has been rising for over two decades and is still rising. I cannot conceal that of all difficulties I face, unemployment concerns me most of all. Leaving aside world recession and the details of economic policies necessary to defeat inflation (which would be the subject of a political discourse) what can we as individuals do to help? For none of us can opt out of the community in which we live. Whether we do something or nothing, our actions will affect it.

First—those who are in work fully accept their duty to provide for those who cannot find work.

Second—if we are employers we can try to take on as many young people as possible, to give them experience of the world of work. There are a number of schemes available for this purpose, and I must say that employers are responding splendidly. They, too, know how depressing it must be for a young person to feel that he is not needed and cannot find a niche for himself.

Third—we could perhaps buy more British-made goods. Not everything British made, because there are jobs in exports, too, and we expect others to buy our goods—but we could help our people by buying more ‘home-made’ products.

Fourth—we can recognise that if at a time when output is not rising we ourselves demand more pay, it can only come from the pockets of others, and it will reduce the amount they can spend on other goods. That kind of pay claim can price your own job out of existence, or cause someone else to lose his job. And that responsibility cannot be shirked—it is a personal responsibility. It is a moral responsibility.

Another factor, which affects us at present, arises in part from the first and second. It is a sense of pessimism brought on because of the frustrations of not seeming to have a national purpose. When this happens to a nation, groups within it tend to work towards their more limited goals, often at the expense of others. [end p6]

This pessimism is expressed in two ways. There are those who want to destroy our society for their own purposes—the terrorists and other extremists that we all too frequently see in action these days. Then there are those who adopt a philosophy of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” . That can result in a grasping of wealth for its own sake and the pursuit of selfish pleasure.

If I am right, we need to establish in the minds of young and old alike a national purpose which has real meaning for them. It must include the defence of the values which we believe to be of vital importance. Unless the spirit of the nation which has hitherto sustained us is renewed, our national way of life will perish. Who is to undertake this task? Throughout history it has always been the few who took the lead: a few who see visions and dream dreams: there were the prophets in the Old Testament, the Apostles in the New, and the reformers in both church and state. I well remember hearing a sermon after the Battle of Britain in which this was said about the few pilots to whom so many owed so much. John Stuart Mill once said that “one person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests” . If we as a nation fail to produce such people then I am afraid the spirit of the nation which has hitherto sustained us, will slowly die.

Part Four: How These Values are Sustained

What then are the institutional means by which these values can be revived—for ideas and sentiments need institutions if they are to survive and be effective? Because we are talking primarily of the values bequeathed to us by a predominantly Christian culture, we must think first of the role of the church.

The church, thought of as the bishops, clergy and laity organised for public worship, has clear duties of its own—to preach the gospel of Christ, to celebrate the Sacraments and to give comfort and counsel to men and women struggling with the trials and dilemmas of life.

Politicians must respect and accept its authority in these spheres. In our own country the state pays homage to the church in many ways. The Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Protector of the Church of Scotland. These arrangements may seem to many to be antiquated, but they express the state’s fundamental respect for the Christian religion. I hope we shall never see here what we have seen in other countries—temporal governments trying to usurp the role of spiritual leadership which properly belong to the church. That is [end p7] a recipe for state tyranny as well as the corruption of religion.

The church, on the other hand, can never resign altogether from what are called temporal matters. It has always rightly claimed to set before us the moral standards by which our public affairs should be conducted.

But I hope you will forgive me, Rector, for stating what I think these days needs to be pointed out, namely the difference between defining standards and descending into the political arena to take sides on those practical issues over which many good and honest Christians sincerely disagree.

This, surely, can only weaken the influence and independence of the church whose members ideally should help shape the thinking of all political parties. Bernard Shaw, in his Preface to “Androcles and the Lion” , makes the breath-taking statement, “Christ was a first-class political economist” , but it was Christ himself who said of those who were too pre-occupied with material things “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” .

I wonder if some people are not demanding that “things be added unto them” before they seek the kingdom of God, indeed regardless of whether they seek it or not.

As for the role of the state (what the Bible calls, the things that are Caesar’s), I have never concealed my own philosophy. I believe it is a philosophy which rests on Christian assumptions, though I fully recognise that some Christians would have a different view. To me the wisdom of statesmanship consists of—knowing the limits within which government can and ought to act for the good of the individuals who make up society;—respecting those limits;—ensuring that the laws to which the people are subject shall be just, and consistent with the public conscience;—making certain that those laws are firmly and fairly enforced;—making the nation strong for the defence of its way of life against potential aggression;—and maintaining an honest currency.

Only Governments can carry out these functions, and in these spheres Government must be strong. [end p8]

But (and here we come back to the point from which we started today) every one of these objects depends for its achievement on the faith and the work of individuals. The state cannot create wealth. That depends on the exertions of countless people motivated not only by the wholesome desire to provide for themselves and their families, but also by a passion for excellence and a genuine spirit of public service.

The state cannot generate compassion; it can and must provide a “safety net” for those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to cope on their own. There is need for far more generosity in our national life, but generosity is born in the hearts of men and women; it cannot be manufactured by politicians, and assuredly it will not flourish if politicians foster the illusion that the exercise of compassion can be left to officials. And so, I repeat, it is on the individual that the health of both church and state depends.

Perhaps we have lost the idea that is inherent in Christ’s parable of the talents. The steward who simply did not use the resources entrusted to him was roundly condemned. The two who used them to produce more wealth were congratulated and given more. To put up with the mediocre, to flinch from the challenge, to mutter “the Government ought to be doing something about it” is not the way to rekindle the spirit of the nation.

Part Five: Conclusion

And so what should we conclude about the relationship between the individual and the nation? I make no secret of my wish that everyone should be proud of belonging to this country. We have a past which, by any standard, is impressive; much in our present life and culture, too, commands great respect. We have as a nation a sense of perspective and a sense of humour; our scholars win international acclaim, our Armed Forces are renowned for their bravery and restraint, and our industries, in spite of economic recession, continue to do well in the markets of the world.

I want us to be proud of our nation for another reason. In the comity of nations, only a minority have a system of government which can be described as democratic. In these, economic and cultural life flourish because of the freedom their people enjoy. But a democratic system of government cannot be transferred to other nations simply by setting up imitations of our insitutions—we have realised this all too clearly in recent times. For democracy to work, it requires what [end p9] Montesquieu described as a special quality in the people: virtue, and I would add understanding. I believe this quality of virtue to be that derived from the Biblical principles on which this nation and the United States, among others, are founded.

I want this nation to continue to be heard in the world and for the leaders of other countries to know that our strength comes from shared convictions as to what is right and wrong and that we value these convictions enough to defend them.

Let me sum up. I believe the spirit of this nation is a Christian one. The values which sustain our way of life have by no means disappeared but they are in danger of being undermined. I believe we are able to generate the will and purpose to revive and maintain them.

John Newton put it elegantly in the sermon to which I earlier referred: “Though the Island of Great Britain exhibits but a small spot upon a map of the globe, it makes a splendid appearance in the history of mankind, and for a long space of time has been signally under the protection of God and a seat of peace, liberty and truth” .

I pray we may continue to receive such blessing and retain such qualities.

About the author

Margaret Thatcher

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