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26 July 2004

The new puritans

From No 10 to the Daily Mail, a Cromwellian vanguard wants to purge our excesses

By Cristina Odone

Hail to the new puritans. They wag their fingers, rap our knuckles and lock the tills (and lock up the bad ‘uns). They wage war against financial extravagance and liberal self-indulgence, they preach sobriety and prudence.

They are a diverse group – including politicians, journalists and retail tycoons – but they share a single ambition: a desire to throw off excess and restore the prudence and thrift of yesteryear.

Foremost among the Roundheads is the Prime Minister: Tony Blair has declared that he will free Britain of the licentious legacy of the Sixties. He will crack down on the irresponsible citizens who stick two fingers up at authority. He will fight those who think life owes them a living. He will liberate Britons from the tyranny of “me me me” and rehabilitate the sense of community that flourished when rights came with responsibilities and “me” came after “us”.

This latter-day Cromwell echoes the eloquent pennings of Melanie Phillips. Every two or three days, the indefatigable Daily Mail columnist lectures her six million readers about the ills of excess: sex outside marriage, slack parenting, our drinking culture, our gambling dens. Ms Phillips lashes us repeatedly for our sins and prophesies doom for those who resist repentance.

Bringing the same puritanical zeal to the world of economics is the Iron Chancellor, Gordon Brown. The dour Calvinist has long been the prime upholder of the Protestant work ethic: getting slackers in the labour force off benefits and into jobs is an article of faith. Now he has raised his sights to a bigger and softer target: the public sector gravy train. Brown wants the toiling masses of teachers and nurses to benefit from the Treasury’s munificence. The bureaucrats, advisers, co-ordinators, facilitators and outreach workers who overstuff the offices of local and central government are in for a nasty shock. Just as the Puritans purged the excesses of the court, so Brown wants to purge the public sector of its sick-leave-loving, pension-provided contingent.

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That same belief in results, hard work and thrift is gaining ground elsewhere. Sir Peter Davis, ousted chairman of Sainsbury’s, was going to trouser a £2.4m bonus, despite his dismal stewardship of the ailing firm. Now Sainsbury’s shareholders are saying that they won’t be paying it – and Sir Peter claims he doesn’t want it, either. Over at Morrisons, the northern retailer that has just purchased Safeway, Sir Ken Morrison, the boss, has sent out a clear message: it is time for the softy southerners to learn the virtuous hard slog of the northerners.

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This crusade against the fat cats goes beyond the shop floor to the very heart of the BBC. Under Mark Thompson, the new director general, cost-cutters have started investigating the outrageous perks and legendary expenses claims enjoyed by figures such as Alan Yentob. While other BBC bigwigs look on nervously, Thompson (who is Jesuit-educated, but of Cromwellian instincts) has let it be known that he will be streamlining the corporation he heads.

They are a mere handful, then, these new puritans. But then, as their spiritual ancestor Oliver Cromwell wrote: “A few honest men are better than numbers.” And, given the influential positions they enjoy, our hair-shirted brigade is perfectly placed to foist its moral rectitude upon us. Will their unsparing message fall on stony ground – or will it prompt a glorious revolution when we mend our ways and build a new caring, sharing and toiling Britain? Certainly the culling of fat cats will prove popular; as will the streamlining of the civil service and the BBC.

But what of the other strictures – those that apply to us ordinary folk? Blair and Phillips call on us to shoulder responsibilities, rein in our basest instincts and treat those in authority with respect: it is not exactly an irresistible call. For years now, we have tasted freedom from censure – no matter what we said or did, no one dared sit in judgement over us; this is as addictive a habit as the drinking, gambling and fornicating that Phillips fulminates against.

After decades of being assured that self-fulfilment is everything, and that we can all flourish when each of us looks out for number one, our climate of selfishness is not easily dispelled. Do the new puritans really think that we will hand in our fripperies and frivolities and tamely don a hair shirt instead? Theirs is an admirable vision of a better Britain – of a nation whose citizens act responsibly and think generously, accept authority and pursue moderation. Thus far, alas, there is little evidence that this utopia can ever be realised.

A shame.