Something myself and a friend were discussing on the afternoon of 19th July over a drink, barely surviving in the heat (which has since departed) is how we do not entirely agree either with an on-line acquaintance of ours from the Libertarian Alliance Blog or with Peter Hitchens. These two men represent two opposing sides on the debate over moral issues. Let me give you a couple of Straw Men representations of their opposing views. On the one hand, there is Ian, who believes that at the root of all our problems is a new wave of Puritanism. On the other, there is Peter Hitchens, who in many respects is a Puritan.
The debate over morality invariably leads to a further debate over reactionism versus progressivism, although, for the sake of honesty and clarity, Ian does not consider himself a progressive. But what many people do think about here is the 1950s. If you are morally conservative, then the 1950s were Good, and if you are a morally permissive “libertine”, then they were Bad.
I do not agree with either of these analyses. Let me explain why.
Yes, in some respects, we are talking about a decade which was much more puritanical than ours, and it is not hard to find examples of moral issues on which British society has since become more liberal. In the 1950s, gay sex was still illegal and now it is legal. Indeed, in the sense that homosexuals now have a number of legal privileges, homosexuality is far from illegal but now is for all intents and purposes compulsory. Since public opinion shapes and is shaped by the law, this is reflected in social attitudes in that to even question the necessity or the rightness of “Gay Marriage” invariably leads to the fiercest denunciations in which the person in the “wrong” will be diagnosed with a mental illness. I could go on.
No-fault divorce has replaced the strict divorce laws of the 1950s. Peter Hitchens is again broadly right that cannabis at least is effectively decriminalised and few people seriously believe in either locking people up for it or in discriminating against peaceful drug users; the only difference between Peter Hitchens and me is that I see this as a positive development whereas he does not. Sex before, and indeed generally outside, marriage is now commonplace. No one bats an eyelid these days if a young couple announce they are going to live together yet have no intention of ever tying the knot. Nobody of almost any denomination except Roman Catholicism – at least, this is my observation as a church-goer – goes to church any more. Nobody respects their elders and betters. Few people dress smartly in public; men are shamefully not always expected to wear a jacket and tie in public any more (which, in the oppressive heat of a few weeks ago, I suppose was of some comfort to me!). The list of ways in which we have become more liberal and less rigidly moral is indeed very long.
Yet, at the same time, there are a number of exceptions to this new permissiveness.
In the 1970s certainly, if not necessarily the 1950s, if a middle aged man patted a twenty-something year old woman on the backside (à la Sid James in the Carry On films) the worst he could expect would be a slap in the face by the woman in question. Nowadays, he might well face criminal charges. In the 1950s, if you tried to pick up a girl who was not explicitly offering herself on the dating market, there was still a good chance of her going out on a date with you. Nowadays, few people do this in Britain.
Indeed, talking to strangers at all is expressly verboten, presumably because people are so damned scared that you might be a paedophile, a rapist, or an ISIS suicide bomber. Speaking of paedophilia, there is now the perverse assumption, given voice to recently by the new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, that anyone – especially a man – who shows an interest in other people’s children – even if they are a nanny, for goodness sake – must be a kiddie-fiddler. If in the 1950s you held a number of views radically out of step with the Establishment – within reason – then the worst you could expect was an argument with someone.
Nowadays, not only will the British State try to silence you, but so will your peers, such is the self-righteous intellectual conformism of modern Britain. If in the 1950s you were poor and asked for financial assistance either from the State or from relatives and friends, it would usually be forthcoming on the understanding that any help would be regarded by the recipient as “not a handout, but a hand up.” Nowadays, at the risk of sounding like a lefty, when the number of millionaires is many multiples of the number that existed in the 1950s, there has developed a new “precariat”: an underclass of unskilled poor workers, subsisting on a combination of ever decreasing levels of welfare and ever more precarious zero-hours contract work, and living in the 21st century equivalent of squalor.
Now, these people will always exist, and socialism will not help them, but here I am concerned with morality.
The “on your bike” mentality has firmly taken root to the extent that the poor are now reviled, and laughed at on Channel 4. This is not an outcrop from the morality of the 1950s; this is something entirely new.
Before you can actually analyse and then perhaps try to solve a problem, you must first diagnose it. What I am saying is that both Ian and Peter Hitchens have basically misdiagnosed the problem. We are not simply more morally permissive or less morally permissive. Instead, things seem to have gone one way for one issue and quite another way for the next issue. Both Ian and Peter Hitchens agree that something has gone wrong, and they are certainly right here, but I am not convinced that either of them has put their finger on it.
What, then, is my diagnosis of the problem? There is no particular moral agenda being pushed on us by the State or by its opinion moulders, but we have definitely lost something from the 1950s which is worth trying to restore. It seems to me that one thing we have lost is an impenetrable sense of privacy, a dividing line between the public sphere and the private sphere. In the 1950s, some things were for you and you alone – except for your close relatives – to know. One of these things was how you were feeling. There was a certain nobility to the national attachment to a “stiff upper-lip.” That is all gone now; you can’t go five minutes without finding out exactly how someone feels.
The trouble with this new deification of emotions is that it sends us all stark raving bonkers.
It has allowed for the abnormal to become normal and the normal to become abnormal, in other words, for the usual suspects to “fuck shit up” (McInnes, 2016). This has allowed for a certain amount of liberalisation; but with an equal and opposite reaction. The 1950s have been well and truly turned upside down. Homosexuality is now legal. Women can leave loveless marriages. Parents don’t beat their children any more. Lovely. But now nobody understands the concept of privacy. Nobody conducts themselves with decorum in public. We have lost perhaps as much as we have gained.
I would suggest that what is most conducive to a free society is not the morality of Oliver Cromwell or the morality of the Marquis de Sade, or the morality of reality television for that matter, but instead something more in line with the morality of Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton. High Toryism draws the right distinction. To be a High Tory is to draw a distinction between public principle and private practice, and to say that what people do in private is their business. As long as it does not become the subject of gossip among the servants or the neighbours, almost anything goes, unless it is evidence of great turpitude. On this standard then, Cecil Parkinson was a beast who deserved to be driven out of politics and polite society. But quiet debauchery is not an issue.
This is what has been lost.
Indeed, it has been reversed, to the extent that not only the State, but every Tom, Dick, and Harry, is more concerned with your private life than what you do in public. This is because if you do not draw this distinction between your public life and your private life, then no one else will, and where there is no border, people will wander straight across. Not only will your peers and indeed perfect strangers invade your privacy at the micro-level, by making a window into your soul and denouncing you as a racist or a sexist on the basis of ill-judged comments in public, but they will do the same at the macro-level, by endorsing invasions of privacy by the State. For, in a society where you do not care much for your own privacy, you will not care much for others’ privacy either – even those whom you have not yet, nor ever will, meet. And so to keep an eye on these people we must have universal state surveillance. This is the kind of puritanism we have today, one where you are pressured to be a coarse, vulgar, and stupid as possible by an Americanised culture, and yet not permitted to do anything truly naughty in the privacy of your own home.
We are all deviants.
I am quite difficult to pin down – no pun intended! – on a number of moral issues. But on a few deeply held principles, I will not budge, in public or private. In some respects, I would not like to go back to the 1950s, but in others I would. The most important of these is the sense of privacy to which our 1950s counterparts wisely held dear. For, as G.K. Chesterton said, “’The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door.”