At heart, we're still a nation of puritans

Bourgeois fury at feckless ingrates, family listening, and the liberal's talent for laughing at their own good intentions
  • @djtaylorwriter

What beliefs unite the great majority of the British middle classes? To judge from their recitation in newspaper letters pages and opinion poll surveys over the past 12 months, the leading group would probably include a profound respect for the Royal Family – a carapace in which Republican sneering never seems to make the faintest dent – deep distrust of the European Union, and an unfettered hostility to what is known to the right-wing press as "benefits culture".

There is no getting away from this dislike of the substantial proportion of the nation's citizenry currently being raised at the State's expense, for its tocsin clangs through practically every forum of public debate. Party affiliations are no check to its clamorous expression – Labour voters are just as opposed to "benefit scroungers" as Conservatives – and even the liberal newspapers have been carrying letters in support of Iain Duncan Smith's proposals to cap at two the number of eligible children. "We are hard-working taxpaying middle-class people, who have every day to make decisions about our lifestyle choices", ran one of them, published in The Independent. "We are sick and tired of paying for those who choose not to act in a responsible way."

Naturally there is much to recommend these exercises in bourgeois self-justification, for they stem from a kind of fundamentalist strain of native Puritanism that has been going strong in our national life for several hundred years. Nearly anyone who earns more than £30,000 a year will be prey to the odd affronted middle-class moment. My own always comes when walking down the thoroughfare in central Norwich that leads to the law courts and watching the procession of pram-hefting teenage girls off to attend their boyfriends' appearances in the dock. There is nothing I can do about my instinctive exasperation: it was the way I was brought up.

On the other hand, talk of feckless ingrates milking the Exchequer and acting in an irresponsible way nearly always ignores the middle class's sempiternal ability to exploit the state for its own advantage. What, after all, is 40 per cent tax relief for pension contributions other than a middle-class perk? One of the sharpest scenes in J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy comes when the pompous, calorifically-challenged parish council chair is expounding the "personal responsibility" line, only to be reminded by a colleague of the thousands of pounds wasted by the NHS in treating his weight-related medical complaints. At the economic level the only way to subdue the "benefits culture" is to create more employment, and where in a world where the factories continue to close and the manufacturing jobs head east, is that to come from? We can't all be computer programmers or wither on the Tesco check-out.


Radio Two has just begun an entertaining series entitled Barbara Windsor's Ladies of Song. The fascination of hearing Ms Windsor pay tribute to such bygone chanteuses as Alma Cogan and Kathy Kirby turns out to be twofold. First there is the straightforward nostalgia of being returned to the family dining room, circa 1965, with the radio on and the ornaments of old-style light-entertainment-land crooning into the ether. But coming up on the rails is an intriguing sub-text about the Americanisation of British culture.

The curious thing about the English-born Alma Cogan is her impeccable Stateside singing tone. If one wanted a date for the beginning of this cultural domination it could be found in the late 1920s, when the first wave of American cinema broke on these shores. J B Priestley notes in Angel Pavement (1930), his teeming novel of Depression-era London, that the appearance and gestures of a character called Edna Smeeth are those of "an Americanised Polish jewess"– presumably Greta Garbo – "who, from her nest in Hollywood, had stamped them on these young girls all over the world".

My father (born 1921) was Edna's male equivalent, always liable to interrupt family meal-times with a snatch of "Ice-cold Katy won't you marry the soldier?" and disliking Ronald Reagan less for his policies than for his debased professional status as a B-movie actor. There have been times when the pendulum swung back the other way – see the 1960s colonisation of America by British pop – but generally speaking this reverse imperialism has been in place for three-quarters of a century. One of the subliminal reasons why British people are so indifferent to continental Europe is that most of their cultural influences come from the other direction.


The book I most enjoyed reading last week was an omnibus edition of Posy Simmonds's cartoons about the Weber family, first offered to readers of The Guardian in the 1980s and now reissued to mark the 25th anniversary of the series' close. The great merit of the adventures of George and Wendy Weber, an irreproachably liberal couple, addicted to all the good brave causes, was that they sharply exposed most of the attitudes espoused by the medium in which they featured: Guardian readers who laughed at them were laughing at themselves.

For some reason the idea that some of the best effects in journalism can be obtained by writing against the grain seems confined to the liberal left. Auberon Waugh's New Statesman columns, intended to annoy the unmarried Coventry schoolmistress whom he imagined to be the magazine's archetypal reader, were some of the funniest things he ever wrote.