“The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. So said H.L. Mencken of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Puritanism; the tyrannical do-gooders of the temperance movement, authoritarians pushing their Victorian values on “sinners” across the Atlantic.
Whether it was booze, sex, drugs or whatever form of permissiveness they thought was destroying western civilization from within, the Puritans of the last hundred years have been conservatives. Reactionary, traditional to the point of totalitarian, these were people who did not like change and would make sure you knew it. Post-war, they detested liberals, these new, amoral, sandal-wearing, pot-smoking, freedom-loving hippies. Typified by the social conservatism of Mary Whitehouse, hectoring the public with their controlling views, the Puritans were not on the side of liberty.
Today, Puritanism has changed. It is still not on the side of liberty. It is still hectoring, controlling, freedom-hating and totalitarian. It is still haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. The difference is the New Puritans are not conservatives, they are liberals. Ironic and perverse given the pro-freedom, anti-authoritarian aspirations of their purported ideology, the mantle of Puritanism has been assumed by so-called liberals, by so-called progressives.
In the last few weeks alone the New Puritans have, like the Old Puritans before them, sought to impose their minority morality over the popular ‘immorality’ of the nation. Last week the government, nominally Conservative-led, announced that it would proceed with standardised packaging for cigarettes. Based on dubious evidence, they will prohibit cigarette companies from branding packaging, supposedly for the good of the population.
Just as the ultra-conservative Anti-Saloon League sought to legislate against the vices of 1900s America, now the ultra-progressives legislate against another ‘sin’, oxymoronically in the name of liberalism. As one Tory MP says of ‘modernising’, ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ‘Conservative’ Jane Ellison, who is responsible for the law:
“It challenges the imagination that such a grubby little measure could come from members of a party who only 25 years ago waged the moral battle of ideas against Communism heralding the freedom of individuals to choose. Now they have morphed from noble liberators to little nannies.”
And the New Puritans won’t stop at smoking. The Labour Party of Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, progressive and liberal as it claims to be, plans to regulate alcohol further still, possibly hitting the poor by setting a minimum unit price and stopping drinks companies from sponsoring sporting events. The New Puritans want to control what you eat, setting a maximum amount of sugar, salt and fat allowed in children’s foods.
Like Whitehouse before them, the New Puritans want to control what you see, launching vitriolic campaigns against the right of women to do the job they want, most recently model for Page 3, condemning this ‘immorality’ enjoyed by millions of normal people across the country every day.
Where next for the New Puritans if Page 3 does go? Liberal Democrat minister Jo Swinson, her party’s pound shop Harriet Harman, has gone a step further, demanding newspapers stop publishing images of women in bikinis. Allahu akbar! It has come to something when the manifestos of the Liberal Democrats and religious fundamentalists of a different kind contain the same policies.
A century ago, the conservatives telling us how to live our lives at least did not insist upon a pretence of supporting freedom. They were authoritarians and they were open about it. Today, the new breed of puritanical, nannying oppressors operate under a disingenuous guise of liberalism. They claim to be progressives. They might ask themselves how far they have progressed in the last hundred years.