In the past couple of weeks I have written a series of articles on the New Puritans on my blog – these have been aimed more at understanding than at castigation. We have to appreciate that these people are not bad people but that they believe absolutely that the role of public health is to change behaviour:
“This should be mainstream agenda. This is not an add on , this not the responsibility of a single professional group, the new public health is what we should be all about and move way beyond this set of current reforms and into seriously addressing these issues of behaviour change.”
Your behaviour, my behaviour, the bloke next door’s behaviour are all to change so as to meet the requirements of proper behaviour. And this proper behaviour is not about swearing, politeness or refraining from sleeping with fallen women but about what we consume – our food, our drink and, for some, our smoking. The purity being sought by the New Puritan isn’t the purity of Christian faith that past Puritan’s sought but a purity of living – the temple is our body not the church of Christ.
Are health educators the new puritans? Yes, of course they are. They would cleanse and purify the new religion. The new religion is a paltry faith. It is worship of self.
And with this desire to perfect mankind comes an associated accountants dream – that tallying up of the cost to “society” of this bad lifestyle.
Unhealthy Britons are costing the NHS, employers and themselves £17.7 billion every year through their lifestyle choices, according to a study by health insurance firm Bupa. And obesity, smoking and excessive drinking could cost us all £33 billion by 2025, unless something is done.
Against this New Puritan onslaught there is little challenge – most of us start from the premise of “so what” when these dreadful figures are pointed out to us. We respond to the accountants by pointing out that those smokers and drinkers pay plenty in extra duty and VAT and tend to die younger – more than making up for the extra cost of their bad lifestyle. But this counts for nothing since the object of veneration is not the NHS budget but the perfectible human body, the temple of hubris.
And our anger is not co-ordinated or directed – smokers rail against the ban on indoor smoking unsupported by groups like CAMRA who, we hope, will die in the ditch to halt the New Puritan assault on drinking. We turn to those who make the products and find that they quite like the restrictive environment – one where business entry is hard and the resulting oligopoly contributes to higher profits:
Diageo wants to see “full equivalence” between all kinds of alcohol, so that one unit is taxed at the same rate, regardless of the drink. The strongest drinks would therefore pay the highest level of tax. Diageo is proposing the move as a way of staving off political pricing on drinks such as alcopops and strong cider, targeted by health campaigners for encouraging binge drinking.
So we arrive at the point where an ill-directed bunch of people connected only by a preference for personal choice and liberty face the huge New Puritan faith backed as it is by large amounts of taxpayers’ cash and the subventions of self-interested multinational businesses. And it is no wonder that, in response to my description of the New Puritan world one commenter had this to say:
The ideological struggle in Anglo nations has been between roundheads and cavaliers since Cromwell and, the puritan faction are now in the ascendant again. But I fear that sitting back to wait for them to self-destruct isn’t going to work. They have never done so in all the preceding centuries. If there are internal contradictions to Puritanism, it hasn’t stopped them so far. We do need to raise an army, of an ideological nature. These people will not stop on their own. They have to be stopped.
Hence this call for New Cavaliers, for a troop of people to take on the army of the new Puritans, that army threatening our leisure and pleasure, that would restrict out freedom and our choice. We should heed the words of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester:
But thoughts are given for action’s government;
Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent:
Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
And he that thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.
Thus, whilst against false reasoning I inveigh,
I own right reason, which I would obey:
That reason which distinguishes by sense
And gives us rules of good and ill from thence,
That bounds desires, with a reforming will
To keep ‘em more in vigour, not to kill.
Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,
Renewing appetites yours would destroy.
My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat;
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, “What’s o’clock?”
This plain distinction, sir, your doubt secures:
‘Tis not true reason I despise, but yours.
We are not placed here to serve some masters – be they kings, presidents or some collectivist concept of government – we are here to consume nature’s bounty. Yes we must work, we must create but this is purposeful only in that it allows us to consume, in that it permits us our choice of pleasure. So we must resist those who would have us join the Church of Public Health, expose them as – in Wilmot’s words – thinking ‘like an ass’ concerned with something beyond happiness, beyond the idea of pleasure.
So what should we do? Here are a few thoughts – feel free to add to them:
- Question, petition and challenge your politicians – don’t listen to those who would see this as waste. Remember that politicians respond to a full mail bag and if it is full of challenges to the New Puritan message from voters many MPs will start to listen. And don’t limit yourself to MPs – target councillors, parish councillor and the candidates from different parties at elections
- Support your local pub, chip shop or burger bar – raise petitions in support of licensing, write letter to the press in support of good licensing. Don’t be scared to offend or upset those – and especially those from public health and police – who would restrict licensing to an English version of the six o’clock swill
- Get involved in local bodies – whether we’re talking about campaigning groups like CAMRA (boy do they need some spine) or local community groups. Get onto Parish and Town Councils – these bodies are always looking for new members and, for a few hours work a month, you get a chance to oppose the message of the New Puritans
- Write to the local paper – it may have a declining readership but it still matters. Speak to the editor too – ask him or her whether you can have an opinion piece, especially if you represent a local group or organisation. Also add comments to new stories challenge the New Puritan message
- Join health bodies – register as members of Hospital Foundation Trusts, get involved with GP Patient Participation Groups, sign up to Alcohol Concern, ASH and other such bodies. Attend the AGMs of these groups and challenge the report on public health and other statements in annual reports.
- Attend health scrutiny panels of local councils – if you’re a group ask to present, to speak. Provide councillors on these panels with reasons why the New Puritans are wrong. Identify and support those politicians who agree or sympathise
All these actions are done without any disobedience, without breaking the New Puritan’s rules. But there may come a point when disobedience is necessary, when we must challenge the orders that allow police to confiscate drinks for no good reason, must protest at stupid smoking restrictions such as those on windy station platforms and must challenge the lunacy of licensing decisions that mean you can drink outside on a fine summer’s evening.
And we must be loud about all this – intolerant of those who tell us to shush because they disagree or else don’t want a row with the New Puritans. My friends – my fellow cavaliers – get that feather in your hat, straighten the beard, dust the ruffles on your shirts and raise your sabres in the charge. We are going into battle – a battle we may lose but would we not rather lose a real battle for liberty and choice than sit idly by? And find ourselves thinking, “maybe I should have said or done something”, as we sip slowly at the half-pint of beer that the Government’s weekly ration allows us? To look up from our approved low calorie, trans-fat free veggie burger and ask ourselves, “how did we let this happen?”
After all we’ve nothing to lose – except the right to choose. The right to drink a couple of pints, to smoke a few fags and to eat hamburger and chips – the right to choose the path of Epicurus over the cursed Narcissism that the New Puritans promise.
Simon Cooke – Cross posted from The view from Cullingworth
UPDATE: There is more over at Dick Puddlecote blog