Postgraduate Lives: Liza Filby PhD student, University of London
The holy war on Thatcher
Thursday 15 December 2005
Liza Filby, 24, is studying for a PhD in the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Church of England, at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
I was born in 1981; I am one of Thatcher's children. I lived through Thatcher, but to me what I'm studying is history. I was at a seminar recently where we all had to introduce ourselves and say what our research was about. When it came to my turn all 45 historians in the room gave a communal gasp. I always get a strong reaction when I explain my topic; Thatcher is still a very controversial figure and many politicians and church leaders from the time find it hard to believe that the 1980s can be classified as history. There are problems with studying such a contemporary period. For example, it's hard to gain a historical perspective when what I read about Thatcher is still so political; yet, on the plus side, I can do oral interviews.
I did a BA in history at Durham and then an MA in modern history at UCL. I took a year out before my PhD because, although I had found something I wanted to research, it's a big decision and I needed a period of reflection. A PhD means committing three years of your life, if not longer, and I needed to know I was doing it out of a genuine enthusiasm for the subject rather than because a PhD is the next stage on the academic ladder. The Institute of Historical Research is a fantastic place to be a postgraduate. It is the place to network if you are a young historian and I like the fact that, at the institute, you really feel part of a discipline. My research examines the Church of England's response to Thatcherism. I am looking at how the Church, a distinguished part of the establishment, led at the time by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, became a leading opponent of the Thatcher government, speaking out against the harsh social realities of Thatcherite economics. Historically, the Church of England has been known as the "Tory Party at prayer". Yet, in many ways, by the 1980s the Church had become a more effective and focused opposition to the Tory government than the Labour party. PhD students are often asked about the relationship they have with their subject and I get asked, "Are you a Christian or a Conservative?" I have to give the boring answer, that I am an objective historian.
I'm also looking at Thatcher's own religion, her claims for the moral basis of capitalism, and her own "get on your bike" theology, where the Good Samaritan could only help because he had money.
What I find particularly interesting is the fact that she was brought up in a strict Methodist household, her father was a lay preacher, and her early life centred on the church. Religion, therefore, was a subject she felt confident talking about - more so than our present prime minister, who is more aware of the British public's total disdain for any declaration of faith or preaching from politicians; as Alastair Campbell famously advised in an interview, "we don't do God".
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