Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised

Dj Taylor@djtaylorwriter
Sunday 19 October 2014 13:43
Boris Johnson didn’t get where he is today by being abstemious
Boris Johnson didn’t get where he is today by being abstemious

As a connoisseur of native British puritanism I followed last week's debate about Boris Johnson's lunchtime drinking habits with a keen interest.

Anxious to remind us what a zany old maverick he is, the Mayor of London not only used the forum of a Radio Times interview to declare that he sometimes "drank an awful lot" over luncheon, but maintained, on the Churchill principle, that knocking back the white wine while everyone else confined themselves to mineral water actually increased his productivity. Reaction was mostly disapproving, or amused, or a combination of the two, and it was left to the man in The Daily Telegraph – for whom Mr Johnson coincidentally writes a column – tentatively to suggest that "to the PC brigade" this sort of thing "was the stuff of dinosaurs".

This was an interesting choice of words, for political correctness is usually defined by commentators on the right as the necessity to tailor your speech or behaviour to a pattern calculated not to cause offence to sensitive minorities, even if the likelihood of your causing offence is unproven – as in the recent photographs of the Prime Minister alongside some Morris dancers in black make-up. Mr Johnson's critics, it seemed to me, were far more likely to be good old-fashioned puritans – puritans being defined as people who wish to deny both themselves and those around them pleasures and material goods on the grounds that the foregoing will be good for them and, by extension, the society of which they are a part.

My fascination with the nature of puritanism stems from the fact that, like many who were children in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was subject to a relatively puritan upbringing. This had very little to do with religion or that classic puritan bug-bear, sexual morality – this was taken for granted – but focused on material comfort. As a child of the Second World War, raised on ration books and the principle of making do, my mother rather enjoyed denying herself things. Sunday lunches, for example, were a kind of guerrilla warfare of children trying to prise extra slices out of the joint while the wielder of the carving knife protested that, no, what remained was destined for Monday's shepherd's pie, not to mention Tuesday's rissoles.

There was even a family game in which we invited my mother to consider how long she reckoned we could hold out were the house to be under siege. The calculations were done with immense seriousness and usually produced an answer of two to three weeks. All this, inevitably, worked its effect. One of the drawbacks of puritanism, alas, is its lack of appeal to the generation on which it is imposed (see, for example, Edmund Gosse's classic 1907 account of his early life among the Plymouth Brethren, Father and Son) and for the whole of my first term at university I breakfasted off a cup of coffee and half-a-dozen bourbon creams, merely because, to one previously only allowed the occasional McVitie's rich tea, the fact of being allowed to eat chocolate biscuits at all was such a novel sensation.

As for the philosophical underpinning of all this, there was, naturally, a practical side. You were encouraged not to eat too much because it would make you fat, and obesity in the end would make you ill. But at least as much of it was moral. For by denying yourself things you became a better person, acquired virtue by having the strength to resist temptation. Politically, this principle worked in a number of different ways. Socialists denied themselves things because, that way, there would be more to go round. Conservatives, or rather a certain type of Conservative, looking at the nation's balance of payments, denied themselves things because those items plainly hadn't been earned, and to a puritan no pleasure is ever achievable from something bought on tick.

Until at least the early 1980s, British politics resounded to these distinct but in the end highly complementary tunes. The great nervousness with which the Labour Party reacted to the changing social fabric of the 1960s and 1970s was that it seemed largely to be built on materialism and having a good time, and the party elders had been raised in a tradition of thrift and frugality. Margaret Thatcher – another woman whose adolescence coincided with the war – came to power on a manifesto that insisted that pleasure, in this case a higher standard of living, had to be paid for, and not the least of the ironies attending her premiership is that a grocer's daughter from Grantham should have presided over one of the greatest material blow-outs in British history.

A blow-out, more to the point, that sealed old-style puritanism's fate by turning us into a nation of hedonists. And so, to go back to Mr Johnson and his boozy lunches, the puritanism of his critics is of a rather different sort. Hardly anyone these days would want to insist that drinking at midday robs you of virtue, that the man or woman who does so is not a pretty sight, gets red in the face and boorish, and that it would be better for your soul if you drank tap water. No, the complaints are more likely to be utilitarian, founded on a suspicion that, for all his claims, a Mayor of London with several glasses of wine inside him will probably function less effectively than a prudent sobersides.

So does Puritanism, as Edmund Gosse knew it, and an Attlee-era Labour Party built on temperance and non-conformity knew it, and, to a certain extent I knew it, still exist? A pat answer would be yes, but that its boundaries have shifted. Apart from a few tiny minorities, and despite the prurience of the tabloid press, what used to be sexual misconduct is of no interest to anyone: the Rev Richard Coles's much publicised accounts of what he got up to in municipal car parks ("From dogging to dog collar" etc) are generally treated as the most tremendous lark. On the other hand, several of last week's newspapers carried reports of the former environment secretary Owen Paterson's speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in which he argued that shale gas was less harmful than the "subsidy-drunk" renewable energy industry.

Mr Paterson, when in office, used to talk about the "puritans" of the environmental lobby, and here, it could be argued, he was on to something. My own reaction to the environmental debate, for example, has a distinct puritan shading. Part of me thinks that we should stop burning fossil fuels, because they are a finite resource and the burning degrades the world we inhabit. But another part of me thinks that central heating is an abomination and that it would be better for us – morally as well as physically – if we abandoned our cars and walked to the supermarket. You don't go for a run in the mornings because it keeps you fit: you go because in however modest a way it makes you an Ubermensch.

As for the longer-term consequences of this new, or rather modified, and almost entirely secular puritanism, pundits are always coming up with highly reductive separations of humankind. Isaiah Berlin once split the world into hedgehogs and foxes; Anthony Powell into agents and patients. But the serious divide, here on a planet where half the world seems to be enjoying itself and the other half miserably getting by, is between Cavaliers and Roundheads.

Cheeringly, there are still large numbers of people out there who believe that conspicuous consumption is a bad thing in itself, and David Cameron and Ed Miliband – and of course Mr Paterson – neglect them at their peril.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments