MRS THATCHER, was so shocked that I should ask what a Conservative Government would do about the rising rate of marital breakdowns that she told me so five times.
Her voice lost its soft emphatic earnestness and took on the attacking stridency she uses against the Labour Front Bench at Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons. I got the clear message that as far as she is concerned this is a personal matter — nothing to do with governments.
"Governments aren't Big Brother. If you have a Minister for Marriage what is your view of people? If you treat people as so many pawns on a chessboard you have no Christian base, no religious base, no religion at all. It's as if the whole of religion had come to: 'What can governments do about these things?'" It was of course the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the suggestion about a Minister for Marriage but I wasn't able to point this out.
"What can I do about the rising rate of marital breakdown? What am I expected to do? Go into the houses? To say that if you are living a violent, drunken life you may not divorce?
"I have seen terrible circumstances in houses. You try to teach a child religion and by saying 'God is like a Father' and they look at their own father and they say 'gosh'.
"Where you've had someone really violent and drunken you can't begin to teach them that. It may not be right for the parents to divorce, that may be -a religious view which you take, but it is certainly right for them to separate so that the children aren't brought up in that terrible background where they have never been able to trust an adult."
I suggested that there was a connection between marital breakdown and social conditions such as bad housing, and that these were presumably areas the Government could do something about.
Mrs Thatcher said she didn't necessarily agree that all the problems were environmental, but she said it in a way which conceded that she thought some were.
"But then how do you explain that so many of the problems arise from those who are brought up with real middle-class backgrounds?" she went on, "In crime? In terrorism? Marxism didn't come from the masses, Marxism came from the intellectuals.
"Of course it's your duty to relieve poverty, disease and ignorance, but what do you call bad housing? I'm appalled when I come across it but I'm equally appalled at some of the modern housing. They'll never make what I call homes.
"How in the world can we take rows of horizontal houses on the streets and imagine they'll be the same when you put them up vertically? What we ought to have done is to knock two into one so that you keep the community together and modernise them but keep some of the character."
One of the things I noticed emerging in the interview was the way in which Mrs Thatcher never mentioned the Conservative Party and she mentioned the Labour Party only once. Yet she continually attacked Marxism, terrorism and totalitarianism.
I asked her if she really felt Britain was in danger of becoming a Marxist society.
"You look at the number of regulations that we have now — that's why 1 was really rather shocked when you said 'What are you going to do about marital breakdown?' You see? You go back and read Orwell's 1984 ... Big Brother, the State.
"It's really like a nurse mothering a patient with sympathy. A good nurse will say 'Now come on, you've been very ill, but you've got to try to get up'.
"If a nurse just smothers a patient with sympathy and says 'Oh you just stay in bed', instead of saying 'Now come on make the effort, you can do it', which do you think produces the best human being?
"It's like a good teacher who makes demands on the children or like training a tennis player. It has political connotations too.
"So many people in politics today judge others by how much of other people's money they can spend. You have some of my opponents getting up and saying: 'I'm all for spending more money on this that or the other'.
"And I say 'Yes. How much of your own money are you prepared to spend on your personal charities?' Virtue is not to be judged by compulsory legislation. A collective conscience is only the sum of individual con sciences."
Abortion, I said to Mrs Thatcher, was a subject of great concern to Catholics. What was her attitude to it in principle?
"The abortion law is only related to the early months and voted for abortion under controlled conditions.
"I'm perfectly prepared to have the Act amended along the lines of the Select Committee recommendations because I think that it's operating in a slightly more lax way than was intended, but I'm not prepared to abolish it
"Abortion only applies to the very, very early days, but the idea that it should be used as a method of birth control I find totally abhorrent."
Mrs Thatcher accepted that we differed on this subject, and said that while Catholics believed that as soon as the ovum was fertilised you had a human being, she believed that after a few months of pregnancy the foetus took on the characteristics of a human being.
Even then, she said "you may have to take the life of the child in order to save the life of the mother, but that is a medical judgment."
What about the future of the abortion issue in the House of Commons? I asked Mrs Thatcher.
"It is not a party political thing at all. We have so much private time both for discussion and legislation, but no one has taken it up this time."
I asked Mrs Thatcher about the growing concern among Catholics in Northern Ireland that a Conservative government would mean a return to a Unionist government at Stormont.
She said that before discussing Northern Ireland she wanted to make it clear that she did not see it as a religious problem. She stressed this.
"There are certain human rights which I think we got right during our time in office," she said. "You cannot differentiate between people on the basis of religion or colour."
But what would a Conservative government do to encourage Catholics to take part in government in Northern Ireland? I asked.
"I am very anxious to get local government going again, but I know the degree of mistrust and suspicion and the ease with which people's feelings call be worked upon over there. You have to work at life. There aren't any easy solutions."
We turned to Third World aid. Would the Conservatives continue the Labour Government's priority of giving aid to the poorest, or would they tie more aid to the interests of British industry and British foreign policy?
Mrs Thatcher said the present policy didn't work. You couldn't be sure that the money reached its destination.
"You always teach people to help themselves, and when you get famine and poverty of course you help to relieve it; but it isn't any answer merely to provide a meal for this week.
"The vast majority of your aid must go to helping them how to live. Help them to help themselves. Unless you do that you're not going to find any permanent solution to the problem, nor do you give them the maximum dignity to which they arc entitled.
But was Britain's aid to be directed primarily at helping the donors or the recipients? I asked.
"I well remember one or two people in my home town. If you bankrupt yourself by wishing to be over-generous to charities, everyone thinks you're a fool. And they are quite right, because if a person can't afford to keep himself he can't afford to keep his neighbour.
"It's no earthly good wanting to be so grand that you can give everything to everyone so that they think you're a hell of a chap. You obviously have your own duty to your neighbour, your own people and you spare a little bit over for the neighbour you can't see."
It certainly wouldn't help the poorer countries, Mrs Thatcher said, if the wealth-producing mechanisms in the West were destroyed, and there was nothing wrong if we in the West got some of the work building the machinery for their development. That helped to create the greater wealth.
I asked her about the policy of allowing more imports from developing countries into Britain.
"We really keep a pretty open door," she said. "We have been very generous. You've only got to look in the advertisement pages of the Sunday papers to know how much comes in from underdeveloped countries. Of course we have to have a limit. It wouldn't help them to have unemployment here."
Should there be human rights clauses in aid agreements? I asked her. But she said it couldn't
be done. Why not? I asked. All you had to do was say you can't have any more aid if you keep these men locked up in prison.
"And how does that help people who are not in prison who are trying to live decent, human lives? How does it help some of
the millions? It's a nice idea but it's not enforceable.
She admitted, however, that the line had to be drawn with people like Idi Amin. "No I would not give aid to Idi Amin because how am I to know it would not be used for terrorist purposes? But if I were asked to give money for the work of the Church in Uganda, yes."
1 asked Mrs Thatcher if she agreed with Edward Norman's Reith Lectures which claimed that the Churches were becoming too political. She returned to what is the core of her theology — the Church must teach people how to live, not give them a blueprint of what to do.
Christianity is more than good works. A Christian must never feel that if only you get the material things right, everything in the garden will be lovely. It was a theme she had stressed many times in our talk.
'I have been very distressed with some of the World Council of Churches' decisions to give money to organisations which seem to me are terrorist organisa tions, which arc prepared to kill and maim innocent men and women to pursue their ends.
"I was never taught anything in religion like that. I was taught that sometimes war is a lesser evil. The Rhodesian guerrillas are not liberation movements: they are terrorist, they are prepared to kill and maim innocent men and women.
"I am dismayed, and I will speak out against it whenever I come up against it. It is not Christian. It denies each man and woman. The moment you start to say in ordinary life 'The end justifies the means' — no."
I asked Mrs Thatcher whether she had a favourite saint, or whether any particular religious personality had influenced her. She mentioned C. S. Lewis for his interpretations of Gospel themes in everyday life, and Cardinal Suenens — "a wonderful person".
She met Pope Paul last year. "No photograph or television can ever capture the personality and atmosphere," she said. "If you say goodness and purity, if you put the words down, they just don't mean what the feeling meant."
What Mrs Thatcher picks on in the men of religion she admires is the ability to incorporate what she sees as the two aspects of religion — "the interpretation of religion, and the action, the good works".
Time was running out — religious education?
"I'm passionate for it, and I would not alter the clause of the 1944 Education Act. Some of the youngsters will never learn if they are not taught at school."
Assemblies as well?
"Yes, I do believe in a collective act of worship, though parents can withdraw their children if they want to.
Time was up. An American senator was waiting for an audience. But there were still the questions on race and immigration which we hadn't dealt with. The rights of Commonwealth citizens already living here would not be affected by any legislation on nationality — that at least she managed to tell me as I left, almost instead of a goodbye.