Thatcher's 'sermon on the mound'
Last night, to mark the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's election as prime minister, BBC Parliament re-ran the entire TV coverage of election night, presented by a youthful David Dimbleby, with political interviews conducted by Robin Day at the other end of the studio. It was, I am not ashamed to admit, a great night of TV.
In her first speech to the cameras, delivered on the steps of Downing Street after returning from the palace, Mrs Thatcher quoted words attributed (probably wrongly) to St Francis of Assisi -- and we marked the 800th anniversary of his conversion on last Sunday's programme.
I thought today it would be interesting to recall a later speech about religion by Mrs Thatcher, in which she appeared to use theology to provide a justification for her political and economic policies. This speech, given to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1988, was nicknamed "the Sermon on the Mound" by the press (the mound being the hill upon which the church's Assembly Hall stands). Read the speech in full here.
It's said that this speech marked the beginning of the end for Conservative rule in Scotland, with many voices raised in opposition to what they regarded as an alien creed that abused classic Christian ideas in an effort to fashion a political manifesto. Mrs Thatcher's supporters say the church invited the prime minister to speak and they shouldn't have been surprised that she would say what she thought. But the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was, at that time, the closest thing Scotland had to a national political assembly, and Mrs Thatcher appears not to have realised the political significance of the gathering.
Mrs Thatcher was accused of arrogantly lecturing church leaders on theology: 'I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life. We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation.'
The statement most cited from this speech was itself a quotation: "Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform". This was a speech that emphasised personal responsibility, wealth creation and the danger of an overly-active state. Reading it now, you may wonder what all the commotion was about back in 1988. That's a sign of how much the political landscape of Britain, and Scotland for that matter, has changed since then.
A coda: After completing the speech, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr James Whyte, presented Mrs Thatcher with some books as a momento of her visit. He handed over recent church reports on poverty, housing and a fair social benefit system, and the house broke into both laughter and applause as he read out the titles of the reports.