Sunday, 27 January 2013

Tories: Puritan-style

This is a preliminary note on what could or should be a serious and lengthy analysis.

I ask myself, what links the kinds of things that Ian Duncan Smith and David Cameron say about 'strivers' and 'shirkers'; the ever tighter clamp on schooling that is exerted by the testing and examining system; performance related pay; the use of the word 'rigour'; today's announcement by the Schools Minister that nurseries should spend time teaching toddlers how to read and do maths; Big Society - charity etc; Austerity talk in the midst of approving of the accumulation of wealth;

It's picking a strong strand from what the Puritans were saying in the 17th century. Their themes were moderation in all things, industriousness as a virtue in itself, a turn away from priests and churches as being the sole site of virtue and wisdom and asking the individual conscience to be responsible for his or her own actions, duties, responsibilities. Radical Puritans were egalitarians and said that poverty was a virtue, but the non-radical ones, praised the rewards of industriousness even if that reward was wealth. Idleness was a sin in itself and anyway, led to evil thoughts and actions. Education of the child was all-important but mainly in order to save the child from his her evil ways - children were  born sinful or 'fallen' and it was the job of parents and schools to beat virtue into them and teach them moderation and industriousness.

There have been significant revivals and metamorphoses of Puritanism other forms of Protestantism and  this isn't an attempt to unify them or equalise them. Different times, different forms. It just seems to me that knowingly or not, this Tory regime keeps picking up on themes first articulated clearly in Britain in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

In 'Measure for Measure', Shakespeare attacks the hypocrisy of one form of this Puritanism in power, as expressed by the character and actions of Angelo, the temporary ruler of the city state. In other words as early as 400 years ago, people sensed that though Puritans could talk the talk of being 'pure' and fighting evil, even as they did so, particularly if they were powerful, could in fact commit the same 'sinful' acts that they claimed to despise.

One of the most repulsive scenes in recent times has been the sight of a rich people voting in the House of Commons to ensure that poor people get poorer. And then laughing about it. Deep at the heart of all this is the notion that 'people on benefits' are idle. (According to Osborne they are lying in bed behind closed curtains.) This is a core Puritan idea.