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The General of the poor and the Iron Lady of industry


Maggie Thatcher and Eva Burrows caricatureOn 20 March, General Eva Evelyn Burrows AC, the 85 year old Australian retired world leader of the Salvation Army, was ‘promoted to glory’ (Salvo-speak for having left this life). As I will suggest, her life of service paralleled and contrasted markedly with another prominent female leader, Baroness Margaret Hilda Thatcher, who died on 8 April 2013.

General Burrows was much loved and respected. She was a deep thinker, a gifted speaker and, rarer still, a big-picture strategist who was also an ‘implementer’. The second woman and second Australian to lead the Salvos’ international, this Christian feminist preached Christ and led a rear-guard action against poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

Burrows spent many retirement years at the Salvos’ digs at 69 Bourke Street, caring for unemployed, homeless, marginalised and sometimes mentally ill Melburnians. She’d sometimes front up at 3 a.m. to help distribute blankets and soup, and saw it as a privilege to wash the feet of homeless people at Eastertime, thus imitating Christ.

Eva’s corps officer – the equivalent to her parish priest was Major Brendan Nottle. He mentioned that the General annually opened her home to ‘Order 614’ – twentysomethings taking on a gap year program to reinforce the Salvos’ work with homeless Melburnians.

‘They’d sit there with Iced Vovos and orange cordial, and think they had this little grandmotherly figure worked out,’ Nottle recalls. ‘Then then they’d go into her office and see photos of the General standing with Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth II, Fidel Castro, Mother Teresa, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Hawke, Margaret Thatcher, etc. It blew their minds – all of a sudden they were exposed to this amazing woman.’

Speaking of that divisive diva Margaret Thatcher, I’ve always been intrigued by the connections between these two prominent women, and, indeed, the disconnect. Interviewing Burrows in 2009, I found she praised many leaders she’d met while in office, yet was respectfully critical of the Baroness.

‘Margaret Thatcher was a disappointment,’ the General said. ‘I felt she didn’t have a deep, true feeling for the poor. I invited her to come out on the soup run indirectly and said it wouldn’t be a media event, we’d go incognito, but the answer was no…well, I didn’t get an answer in a sense…

‘Mrs Thatcher always had about her a certain, almost aristocratic, style. You might even say arrogant style, which I would never want to copy. There was a formidability to her. She was not the kind of woman you could sit down with and have a little chat.’

Tackling the same formidable subject with ABC radio interviewer Margaret Throsby, that same year, the General added, ‘she didn’t accept the invitation…I was a bit sad…She may have been a strong leader [and] she spoke so often about compassion, but I would have liked her to have shown a bit, that time.’

In 1996, Burrows had told Australian Biography Project interviewer Robin Hughes that ‘I didn't really hold with Margaret Thatcher's position, which seemed to imply that, you know, if you worked hard you'd pull yourself up by your bootlaces [as] so many people who are disadvantaged don't have any chance to pull themselves up.’

The Baroness reigned as PM from 1979 to 1990. Burrows’ candid insights were not formed in a void; she knew Thatcher’s Britain well. She’d ‘joined up’ as a Sally officer there in the ’50s, served in London from 1970-75, headed up the ‘women’s social services in Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ from 1975 to 1977 before leading the Scottish Sallies for three years from 1979 – all before taking on the head Salvo job from 1986 to 1993.

The Australian saw the devastating effects of Thatcher’s policies in Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English communities. Cruelled industries, broken communities, sweeping unemployment, crippled unions. Wars waged, lives lost and damaged for generations.

Ruling contrasting ‘realms (politics versus the ‘fields of the Lord’), deploying different styles (autocratic versus consensus), opposing philosophies manifested. Thatcher’s brinksmanship with the Soviets compares clumsily with Burrows’ quiet conciliation as she finessed the Salvos’ re-entry into post-Cold War bastions such as the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Russia.

Burrows’ belief in a Divine preferential option for the poor was decidedly not shared by the British PM. The General grew up in poverty herself, as one of nine children born to Salvation Army officers. She once declared it is ‘injustice when a small fraction of the population grows richer by the year, while others ache and suffer for lack of the most basic necessities [and] there is gross inequality in how a nation’s resources are distributed’.

‘Poverty diminishes people… I have seen people competing with dogs on the rubbish heaps of many large cities of impoverished lands,’ Burrows once said. ‘The poor are not just some conglomerate group which can be dismissed as an economically nonproductive sector of society…While politicians are tallying up the economic costs of unemployment, I wish they'd be more aware of the social and moral consequences.’

Then there was Burrows’ strong international stance against apartheid and admiration of Nelson Mandela (feel free to compare and contrast), and her passionate advocacy against homelessness and inequity (think Thatcher’s Poll Tax).

Both women knew actions are decibels louder than words. Their respective preferred courses of action, however, often diverged.

The best ‘last words’ for General Burrows devolve from her encounter with Mother Teresa; a woman she highly esteemed: ‘Mother Teresa said, “I have helped people talk to the poor, and not just about the poor”…that’s very important to me, too.’

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Margaret Thatcher, Eva Burrows, poverty, Salvation Arms, Salvos



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Existing comments

Thanks for a wonderfully insightful tribute to am amazing person. Without a dought, the Salvos have lost a visionary in General Burrows' passing.

Jen V | 30 March 2015  

"....and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!” (Margaret Thatcher) Barry Gittins, do you have any objections to the above statement as a general philosophy?

John Ryan | 30 March 2015  

Thanks Barry!!

Craig | 30 March 2015  

Grateful for a wonderful woman of God who we honoured to have as Prime Minster of the United Kingdom.

Paul Hilditch | 31 March 2015  

Hi John Ryan, thanks for the comment - I am pressed for time at present, but I'll suggest, to me, this famous 'no such thing as society' quote from the Baroness reflects the relentless 'Cult of the Individual' philosophy that underpins much of economic rationalism and neo-conservatism, The furphy lies in the structural inequities that thwart individual efforts. Not every person who wishes to rise out of poverty and disadvantage will have the will, capacity and drive of a Margeret Thatcher. Not every child up against it, through no fault of their own, will benefit from the grace and support shown to them by an Eva Burrows. Compassion is a rarely spent coin by our political leaders. To pretend that life is experienced on a level playing field is disingenuous at best and duplicitous at worst.

Barry Gittins | 31 March 2015  

Thank you Barry for a thoughtful commentary on Eva Burrows and the reflection on Mrs Thatcher. Both sought change, one through compassion, humanity and Christian love, the other through command and control. One led to great community distress and pain, the other sought to bring people through it. The world has seen enough Thatchers and would do well with more Burrows.

Brett | 31 March 2015  

One of the criticisms of the Church - any Church - from some on the Left of the political spectrum is that they merely stick band-aids on the sores of society. A criticism from the Right, including Margaret Thatcher and her "Dry" Tories, is that social welfare and charity get in the way of human progress. "Progress" has victims. l think the work of so many, like General Burrows, shows where Jesus' vision for the poor was. I don't think the Churches are unaware that some exploit the system. Their work was and is for those who need it. General Burrows and Mother Teresa were not naifs. They had seen life at the sharp end. Perhaps the politicians and bureaucrats of Canberra and Westminster are the real naifs? Perhaps they are the ones who have not or cannot see? Perhaps they are blinded by their own assumptions?

Edward Fido | 31 March 2015  

A lovely tribute Barry thank you. I was reared by the Salvation Army and was fortunate to have a wonderful life with those dedicated women, whom I kept in touch with until they were all "promoted to glory". Iris Walters was the matron during my timeline and she had a prominent role in the salvaging of lives from cyclone Tracy, who has never been mentioned in any docummentary which is sad. No discrimination against women there either, holding positions of authority.......

Lynne Newington | 31 March 2015  

Hi back to you Barry Gittins and thanks for your reply. I am very interested in theories of what the relationship of the State/Government should be to society as a whole, especially how to assist those who are in need or distress. Would you be able to recommend some authors who you think best understand the issues and suggest solutions? Thanks again.

John Ryan | 31 March 2015  

Eva Burrows was also the General when thousands of Australian children were being abused in their homes. Failure to stamp out these heinous crimes takes away from all the good she may have done.

James Luthy | 01 April 2015  

Thatcher - the epitome of the tiresome, ignorant, British boor!

john frawley | 01 April 2015  

There’s actually a lot in common between Margaret Thatcher and Eva Burrows. For one: when Thatcher said “there’s no such thing as Society”, she was, amongst other things, calling on people to take responsibility for helping themselves and each other, not just sit back and rely on “the government” or “society” to solve their problems – a legacy of big government and the overweening welfare state which was and still is a recipe for poverty and despair. So General Burrows, Mother Teresa and thousands of lesser known individuals and voluntary charities are stirling examplars of the virtues Thatcher was urging upon her fellow Britons. For another, despite any difference they may have had about the means, there’s no doubt Thatcher was concerned, like Burrows, about lifting the poor out of poverty. And Thatcher’s method - advocacy of the market as the means to end systemic poverty - has been vindicated over the years. The Brookings Institute in 2011 noted that whereas it took 25 years to reduce systemic global poverty by half a billion up to 2005, it took a mere 5 years to reduce global poverty by another half billion by 2010 – a rate, it noted, that was “unprecedented in history”. This “miracle” was due neither to massive hikes in government foreign aid (it remained static over the time), nor to a sudden proliferation of General Burroughs/ Mother Teresa type activists on the world stage. It was due to the globalization of the market economy, “economic rationalism” if you like, with the citizens of countries like India and China the leading beneficiaries. “Structural inequities” certainly hamper individual efforts, as Barry Gittins notes – and this is precisely why Thatcher advocated the market as the means to liberate people from the crippling legislative structures imposed by states that lock people out of markets and entrepreneurial activity. Thatcher certainly wasn't alone: another champion of the poor who proved the market was their friend was the late great Lee Kuan Yew, whose Singapore is a modern miracle of poverty elimination. Yet another was the unsung British bureaucrat John Cowperthwaite, who imposed the free market on the colony of Hong Kong with astonishingly beneficial results for its poor. Stand up Eva Burrows, Mother Teresa and selfless generosity. And stand up Lee Kuan Yew, John Cowperthwaite, Margaret Thatcher and the free market.

HH | 01 April 2015  

Mother Teresa taught people not to ignore the poor and how to live and work with the poor. For that the world should be very grateful. However the next step as Bishop Helder Camara from Brazil once said is to ask the question why the poor still remain poor?

Wayne J McMillan | 02 April 2015  

The poor remain poor because they’re stuck in non-market economies. Think: North Korea v. South Korea. Red China v. Taiwan. Communist East Germany v. West Germany. Zimbabwe v. Mauritius. Dominican Republic v. Haiti. Singapore 1959 v Singapore 2015. etc, etc. The empirical consensus over the last two centuries is overwhelming: if you really care more for the poor than for your precious leftist ideology, you’ll opt for a market economy.

HH | 07 April 2015  

As I knew Eva, there was a love and concern for others that surpassed all of her visible achievements. Her gift was to be human, and relate to other humans, no matter what their circumstance. Honest, Brave, Insightful and true to her life long commitment. While always the consummate politician, selling snags at an overnight sausage sizzle was never beyond her, even in her later years. Always a presence for Jesus, God, she took her love to the people. Privileged to have been able to spend time with her. You cannot ever discount "Old School" mores. She rocked, and her legacy should always be recounted for the small things.

Peter Murphy | 18 August 2015  

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