Argentina’s farewell to Margaret Thatcher

Reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political.

 

On 11 April 2013, we were informed that Margaret Thatcher had passed away at the age of 87. In the city of Buenos Aires, my new home of one month, the news wasn’t greeted by carnivals, street parties or funfair. On the other hand, it certainly did not go unnoticed. It is true that for many, she continues to symbolize the loss of the Falkland Islands, 649 Argentine soldiers and a sense of national pride. Some people, especially those who have direct links to a Falklands veteran, viewed her as a tyrannical dictator akin to the likes of Stalin or Hitler. To others she was cast the part of a "baddie" in a story which sees Argentina the victims against an intransigent tyrant. In both cases her death was accompanied by a strong to mild sense of justice. Young people especially, who seem more politically engaged here than in the UK, often participating in political protests in the capital city, had little or no problem broadcasting this point of view.

In the days following her death, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were hosts to a handful of barely censored results, such as "Good Riddance!", which explicitly conveyed the feeling that  the "Iron Lady" will not be missed in this part of the world. To add to matters, her passing closely followed the Malvinas War Memorial Day on 2 April on which Argentines gathered to remember the veterans of the war as well as the determination of civilians who had offered time and resources to further the war effort. For some, the Memorial Day, celebrated only three weeks ago, heightened emotion surrounding Thatcher’s death and the desire to see the Falklands restored to Argentina.

On the other hand, there are many Argentines who believe that the demise of the junta military dictatorship, which Thatcher opposed, led to the first signs of democracy in Argentina. In 1983 the junta military dictatorship commanded by General Galtieri, surrendered power a year after war ended. They seem grateful to Thatcher for her courage in deploying the British Army to face General Galtieri, who was removed from power within days of the start of the war. It is safe to say that I have not encountered many people who harbour a deep-seated hatred towards her or expressed unashamed joy at the news. Even on the radio stations no more than a few moderate, predictable comments were made about her character and a questionable song or two played in her "honour" including "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". Over the following days it became apparent that, to the man in the street, Margaret Thatcher herself did not pose the problem but rather the wrongful ownership of the Falklands to which she is inextricably linked. As such, reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political. "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" (The Falklands belong to Argentina) was the sentiment that was renewed daily - one which the government began to propagate anew.

Equally, there are Argentines who reacted with indifference to the news and to whom Margaret Thatcher represents nothing other than a difficult period in history and a futile on-going conflict. Their perspective is that the islands have caused so many problems at this point that it is about time they became a separate, self-governing entity with ties to neither country. Other people I have spoken to seem to express more antipathy towards Britain and her people rather than Margaret Thatcher.

It is interesting is that the Argentine government has not as yet issued an official statement or expressed their sympathies to Thatcher’s family. The foreign secretary, Hector Timerman, has recently asserted that the decision of Thatcher’s children not to invite the Argentine president was an unnecessary provocation at a time when "the family should have sought to ensure peace". Nevertheless, the government’s response to this seemed to suggest a nonchalant lack of desire to be invited in the first place. While some politicians refused to comment directly on her death, perhaps wishing to remain diplomatic, several newspapers here including those known to be heavily censored by the government did not avoid printing explicit headlines such as "The Iron Lady sunk" and "Galtieri awaits her in hell". The latter refers to General Galtieri, thus illustrating how some Argentines attribute equal blame to both the contemporary Argentine military leader and the British prime minister. Politicians continue to debate the approach and subsequent methods President Cristina Kirchner and her administration are adopting to address the Falklands issue (in terms of speech content and dialogue with David Cameron). However, they do agree unequivocally on the message to be conveyed to Argentines and the rest of the world: serious talks are required to return the Falklands back to their rightful owners. 

 

Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim in 1983. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496