The New Puritans
What is it with this new puritanism that’s sweeping the land? David Cameron might like to witter on about ‘happiness indexes’ for the UK and the like, but the grim reality of his government is ever increasing restrictions on people enjoying themselves. Take this latest nonsense about retailers not being able to actually display the tobacco products they’re selling, resulting in supermarket kiosks with rows of locked metal doors behind the counter. Apparently the next step will be to force manufacturers to put their products in plain packets, with no logos or colour scheme. Is this really going to encourage people not to smoke? It isn’t an opportunist habit – people don’t buy cigarettes because the colourful packets behind the counter have caught their eye. No, they smoke because they enjoy it! Which can’t be allowed in Cameron’s Britain, it seems. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a smoker myself, I think it’s a pretty filthy habit and the tobacco companies are most certainly evil, but I do think that people are entitled to make a choice as to whether they smoke or not. Sure, give them all the facts about the health risks so that it’s an informed choice, but if they want to take the risk, let them.
But it isn’t just smoking the new puritans are targeting. Oh no, they’ve got all the foods we enjoy most in their sights, this time using the spectre of obesity as an excuse. Anything even slightly enjoyable is now bad for you, apparently. All those fat kids are gross wobble bottoms as the result of too much fast food, too many soft drinks and too much sugar generally. Only the other day I saw some doctor on TV demanding that a ‘fat tax’ be imposed on any food or drink labelled ‘bad for you’. But is this supposed ‘obesity epidemic’ down to kids eating the ‘wrong’ foods? I seem to recall that when I was a child we all spent a lot of time eating far too much chocolate and crisps, drinking too many soft drinks and stuffing ourselves with 1970s fast foods, most of which came from Wimpy’s or the local chippy, rather than McDonalds or Burger King. However, nobody worried that we’d all end up fat bastards and, by and large, we didn’t. The difference, I suspect, lies in lifestyle changes – we tended to be more active in my day. Mainly because our parents were always throwing us out of the house and telling us to ‘go and play in the fresh air’. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much choice as. Apart from the TV, which generally didn’t broadcast during the day, home entertainment was pretty much non-existent. So we went out instead and burned off all that fat by exercising – usually in the form of running away from people whose sheds we’d just torched or tyres we’d let down.
Not that I’m subscribing to the view that playing video games all day is bad for children – another favourite theme of the new puritans. Indeed, I wish that such games had been around when I was a kid. No, the fact is that, thanks to changes in technology and working practices, we all tend to live more sedentary lifestyles. Stopping people from enjoying themselves, whether by playing video games or eating Big Macs and dinking Coke, isn’t going to change that. By all means encourage people to exercise more – which will make a difference to obesity rates – but try to convince them that they might enjoy it, then they might do it. But obviously, such a strategy would never occur to the new puritans, for whom the very notion of pleasure seems to be a sin. Of course, the big target for these new puritans is alcohol. It’s also the area where their agenda is most obvious. By proposing a minimum price on the alcohol sold in supermarkets as a solution to the supposed problem of ‘binge drinking’, it is plain for all to see that their main aim is to prevent the masses from gaining access to cheap booze. This, combined with the ever-increasing taxes on alcohol which are pricing ordinary people out of pubs, is clearly designed to prevent the working classes from indulging in one of the few pleasures left to them: drink.
Indeed, the very use of the term ‘binge drinking’ reeks of class discrimination. Media reports on the subject are always accompanied by the same images of obviously working class, predominantly young people staggering around streets awash with their vomit, smashing shop windows and turning over cars. They’ve obviously been drinking in pubs and clubs. However, if the excessive drinking takes place in upmarket wine bars and restaurants and the alcohol being imbibed is in the form of fine wine or champagne and the drinkers are wearing old school ties, it isn’t ‘binge drinking’, it seems. ‘Binge drinking’ is another of those things that only the lower classes do, involving pints of lager, shots of cheap spirits and the like, and takes place in shabby pubs or garish clubs with blaring music, and results in violence and destruction of property. Posh people getting drunk and trashing restaurants is merely ‘high spirits’.
But even if ‘binge drinking’ is a real phenomenon, is its root cause the availability of cheap alcohol, as the puritans would have you believe? In reality, drinking cultures are a function of the society they exist in. The fact is that in the UK we’ve developed a drinking culture in which alcohol consumption is all too often seen as an index of ‘macho-ness’ for men, in which it becomes tied up with aggressive behaviour and loudness. More recently, this same culture has been adopted by many female drinker – so called ‘ladettes’. Make no mistake – alcohol doesn’t make people violent, it is merely used as an excuse for behaviour that would ordinarily be considered anti-social and, to be honest, most so called binge drinker aren’t violent. They may be loud and sometimes obnoxious, but generally speaking they are merely enjoying themselves. It might not be my idea of enjoyment, but it is actually pretty harmless. But can we blame these young people, (because according to the media and politicians, binge drinkers are always young), for wanting to get blind drunk on a regular basis, bearing in mind their uncertain employment prospects these days? Even those in work are likely to be doing soul-destroying minimum wage drudgery in call centres and the like, where no initiative, free thinking or job satisfaction is allowed – deviation from a rigidly set job card will result in instant dismissal. Being ‘helpful’ to customers is seen as time-wasting. Add to that the constant erosion of their civil liberties and social services, and alcoholic oblivion suddenly seems a tempting option.
But getting back to my main point, the purpose behind the new puritanism in all its manifestations should be clear – it goes hand in glove with the government’s austerity policies. You might well think that the term ‘austerity’ simply applies to the economy, but think back to the last time it was in common usage: World War Two and the immediate post-war period. Then it meant general deprivation – people were discouraged from enjoying themselves because it might be detrimental to the war effort, everyone had to knuckle down and work harder and longer for less pay. Which is exactly the mind-set Cameron and his public school cronies are trying to impose on the British population. Just as in the war, though, there will remain an elite who will experience no deprivations, who will continue to enjoy themselves in the style to which they are accustomed. Indeed, like war profiteers, they will continue to prosper, making money from the recession. But the austerity of the 1940s eventually gave way to the new welfare state, with the workers being rewarded for enduring these hardships with the prospect of a better standard of living, better wages, more rights, health care, education and much more. And that is what the new puritanism and austerity is about: putting us lower classes back in their place, reminding us that we have no right to be enjoying ourselves. Pleasure is a privilege reserved only for the elites that can afford it. Obviously, there’s only one way to fight back – go out now and drink twelve pints of strong lager, smoke fifty cigarettes and eat half a dozen Big Macs or Whoppers, with fries. Do it now, or before you know it they’ll be telling you that sex gives you cancer of the cock and should be regulated with a sex tax. So, until the next time sleaze fans, gratuitously pleasure yourselves. It could be your last chance.