Raise a frugal toast to modern puritanism

Arguments around fracking and HS2 presuppose consumer need. But a tide against materialism would cause bigger shockwaves still
  • @djtaylorwriter

Now that the crisis in Syria has motored up to displace domestic concerns from the front pages, it is easy to forget that two of the more substantial rows of the late summer season have centred on fracking and the proposed HS2 rail link. On the one hand, certain parts of the countryside could be dug up by the shale gas prospectors, and, simultaneously, certain other parts could be irretrievably despoiled in order that half an hour or so may be shaved off the journey time from Birmingham to London for the benefit of the nation's businesses.

Naturally, these two rows are linked. On the other hand, the opposition to them is by no means clearly defined. In fact, you could argue that the activist who is preparing to shackle him or herself to a tree should the HS2 bulldozers arrive in a particular Chiltern meadow has a choice of perhaps four separate objections: the wider environmental objection (digging up green fields is a bad idea); the narrower environmental objection (digging up the green field that adjoins my garden is an especially bad idea); the economic objection (HS2 is a waste of taxpayers' money); and, perhaps more important than any of these outriders, the puritan objection. This maintains that almost any scheme intended to ameliorate the human lot and make life softer and more convenient is philosophically suspect in the first place.

A modern social historian, if questioned on point four, would probably suggest that the animal known as native British puritanism is very nearly dead, snuffed out to the point of extinction not so much by the events of the 1960s, which only happened in a few square miles of central London, but the events of the 1960s and 1970s, when the age of Aquarius, fais ce que voudras, and having a jolly good time, began to have an impact on the population at large. Alwyn W Turner's excellent A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, published this week, is, for example, set in a sea of hedonism, where the idea that it might be a sound notion to deny yourself things every now and again seems as out of date as Norman Tebbit's view of sexuality.

But that social historian would be wrong, for what might be called the Malvolio Tendency in British life ("Fool! Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?"), honed by the Reformation, given a whole new social dimension by 18th- and 19th-century nonconformity, never really went away: it merely disguised itself and took on new identities in the environmental movement and left-wing politics, to the point where even now, despite half a century of double-glazing, loft insulation and patio heating, there are still millions of people whose attitude to life is built on the paradoxical certainty that the greatest pleasure in existence is denying yourself pleasure.

As to the question of where modern – as opposed to Tudor or Victorian – puritanism might hail from, a good place to start is the Second World War, although a distinction ought to be made between combatants and people who experienced the privations of the Home Front. My father, who spent five years in the RAF, had a seize-the- day attitude to life's pleasures. Offered a meal, he would immediately accept, even if the previous meal had been eaten an hour ago, on the grounds that back in 1941 you never quite knew where the next one would be coming from.

My mother, alternatively, whose pre-teenage years were dominated by meat-free Woolton pies and raspberry jam made out of flavoured turnip, with wooden pips, had the proper frugal view of household economy and was never so happy as when deciding that the Sunday joint might do for three meals instead of two.

All this had a dramatic effect on me, their eldest son, who grew up with the curious idea that a little of what you fancy would probably do you irretrievable harm. In my first job in London, where one of my principal duties involved being taken out to lunch in carvery restaurants by avuncular print salesmen, it took me two years to get beyond ordering the chicken, invariably the cheapest dish on the menu. Even now it is a struggle to open the second can of Guinness, in the surefire, puritan certainty that it cannot taste as good as the first.

And so the 21st-century landscape is still awash with people who examine what they very soon diagnose as the wastefulness and profusion of modern consumer society, its superfluous "choices" and pointless technological garnishes, with an unmitigated sense of horror. They know that enjoying yourself won't do any good in the long run, that pleasures will have to be paid for, that God – or someone – will have his revenge in the end, and the thought of conducting risky geological experiments in the hope of turning up something as trivial and unnecessary as shale gas fills them with despair.

It scarcely seems necessary to add that I am a terrible hypocrite and that if I didn't have a heater to warm my study first thing on a December morning I should sulk until lunch-time. But the political – let alone the moral – implications of this residual puritan strain on our national life are rather ominous. For about the past 60 years, certainly since the end of the Attlee government, British politics has been fuelled solely by materialism, the belief that the path to human happiness consists of more money, bigger houses and unlimited consumer goods, and that moral worth rests on the size of one's pay packet. At some point in the medium-term future, probably when the oil begins to run out, there may very well emerge a political party to whom materialism is much less important (I don't mean the Greens), and if that happens, the fat really will be in the fire.