I’m taking my time reading through Margaret Thatcher’s The Path to Power, going one section at a time, as I try to increase my knowledge of the history of the United Kingdom in the late twentieth century. As I’ve followed her life from her time with her family, to her university years at Oxford, to her early political career, I’ve been fascinated with her observations of the era.
I was struck particularly by a section of the book dealing with the cultural shift in Britain in the 1960s. Thatcher, from the perspective of hindsight, details the loss of the Christian foundations in her country:
By now (1968) the left-of-centre consensus on economic policy was being challenged and would continue to be so. But the new liberal consensus on moral and social matters was not. That is to say that people in positions of influence in government, the media and universities managed to impose metropolitan liberal views on a society that was still largely conservative morally. The 1960s saw in Britain the beginning of what has become an almost complete separation between traditional Christian values and the authority of the state.
She freely acknowledges that she didn’t catch the drift at the time. In fact, she voted in favor of a couple of bills that haunted her later. One decriminalized homosexual conduct between consenting adults over the age of twenty-one. The other allowed abortion “if there was substantial risk that a child would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, or ‘where the woman’s capacity as a mother would be severely overstrained.'”
She was influenced, she said, by her concern for other people’s suffering, but didn’t see at first the moral ramifications of what she helped start. Her analysis of those issues changed considerably later, as she explains:
As regards abortion, homosexuality, and divorce reform it is easy to see that matters did not turn out as was intended. . . . Instead, it could be argued that they have paved the way towards a more callous, selfish and irresponsible society. Reforming the law on abortion was primarily intended to stop young women being forced to have back-street abortions. It was not meant to make abortion simply another “choice.” Yet in spite of the universal availability of artificial contraception the figures for abortion have kept on rising.
Homosexual activists have moved from seeking a right of privacy to demanding social approval for the “gay” lifestyle, equal status with the heterosexual family and even the legal right to exploit the sexual uncertainty of adolescents.
Divorce law reform has contributed to—though it is by no means the only cause of—a very large increase in the incidence of marriage breakdown which has left so many children growing up without the continual care and guidance of two parents.
Knowing how matters have turned out, would I have voted differently on any of these measures? I now see that we viewed them too narrowly. As a lawyer and indeed as a politician who believed so strongly in the rule of law, I felt that the prime considerations were that the law should be enforceable and its application fair to those who might run afoul of it.
But laws also have a symbolic significance: they are signposts to the way society is developing—and the way the legislators of society envisage that it should develop. Moreover, taking all of the “liberal” reforms of the 1960s together, they amount to more than their individual parts. They came to be seen as providing a radically new framework within which the younger generation would be expected to behave.
Margaret Thatcher was able to own up to her mistakes and learn from them. In the same vein, when Ronald Reagan saw the consequences of a liberal abortion law he signed as governor of California, he delved into the subject and came away a staunch pro-lifer. He always regretted his earlier action. While I wish neither Reagan nor Thatcher had made those mistakes, I am heartened by the fact that those who have a Biblical foundation to their thinking can see their missteps and make amends for them later.