A puritan revival is under way. It explains the success of Jeremy Corbyn and, in a subtler way, the rise of Theresa May. It also underpins the hatred of figures such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, and the disgust one feels as one gazes at a Mediterranean view, spoiled by the superyachts of plutocrats who wish to proclaim their unbounded wealth and utter lack of taste.
Take Corbyn first. The puritan distrust of theatre is plainly what inhibits him from even attempting, most of the time, to make anything in the way of a witty, let alone flamboyant, retort to the Prime Minister. Corbyn’s supporters admire this, for they, too, are puritans. As the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, recently said, they think he is more upright and honest because he disdains the politics of display. In their eyes, to act a part is to be untruthful and, therefore, sinful: a point confirmed by the pleasure it might give.
Theatre can, of course, be done in many different ways, and whenever one style has prevailed for too long it creates a hunger for something new. Kitchen-sink drama is, at its best, a delightful change from the well-made play or, in Labour’s case, the well-made spin at which Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell excelled. Every politician’s mannerisms become wearisome in the end: Stanley Baldwin’s pious bromides, Harold Macmillan’s Edwardian affectations, Harold Wilson’s cheeky chappie act.
But to imagine one can get by, in politics, without putting on a performance of some kind is madness. How else is the audience’s interest to be engaged? I mean the wider audience, which for most of the time ignores politics. When Claud Cockburn arrived in Washington as a young man to work for the Times, he was advised by Willmott Lewis, the celebrated correspondent for whom he would be standing in: “I think it well to remember that, when writing for the newspapers, we are writing for an elderly lady in Hastings who has two cats of which she is passionately fond. Unless our stuff can successfully compete for her interest with those cats, it is no good.”
The same is true of political leaders. But whenever one makes the elementary point to a Corbyn supporter that the Labour leader is not only bad at engaging the interest of people who are more interested in their cats, but does not even conceive that it would be a good idea to do so, the supporter takes this as a compliment to Corbyn. He, at least, is pure enough not to engage in the low hucksterism that has disfigured our politics. He may be wilfully understated, Pooterish and dull, but he can congratulate himself on being unspotted by Blair’s worldliness, greed and pro-Americanism.
The Labour Party has not yet split, but is already divided by a gulf of incomprehension. On one side stand the puritans, whose self-righteousness is fortified by criticism, which to them is proof of their virtue. On the other side stand the careerists, who think it pointless to be in politics unless you are at some stage going to win power, but who cannot tell us the point of doing so. Nobody since Tony Crosland has managed to give a persuasive account of the future of socialism (his book was published in 1956), but Corbyn at least enables his followers to believe that puritanism, understood as a return to the original verities of their faith, has a future, even though the policies needed to achieve this remain elusive.
The new spirit of puritanism can be found in the Conservative Party, too. A ruthless purge of the plutocrats has taken place. By holding the EU referendum, David Cameron, an Old Etonian descended from a long line of stockbrokers, took a gamble that did not pay off. He knew he had to go, and Theresa May has since sacked most of his coterie. One of the few to make the transition from the old regime to the new is Gavin Williamson, who served for three years as Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary. He joined May’s campaign as soon as Cameron resigned as prime minister, became her parliamentary campaign manager a day later, and so impressed her with his ability to marshal Tory MPs that she appointed him Chief Whip in July.
Williamson was educated at state schools in Scarborough, read social sciences at the University of Bradford, worked in the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent, fought Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005, was elected for South Staffordshire in 2010, and in his maiden speech to parliament asserted that manufacturers “often have a lot more common sense than bankers”. Under May’s leadership, this sort of proudly provincial background is more in favour than it was under Cameron.
May’s closest adviser, Nick Timothy, is from Birmingham. Both of his parents left school at the age of 14, but he went to King Edward VI in Aston, the grammar school for boys, which he describes as a “transformational” experience with “extraordinarily brilliant teachers”, after which he became the first member of his family to go to university, studying politics at Sheffield. Many people are puzzled that the Prime Minister has taken the risk of deciding to create new grammar schools, and wonder why she has done this. A large part of the answer is surely that she and Timothy think it is the right thing to do. They are true believers who feel themselves called on to show courage in defence of what they know to be right.
Unlike Cameron and George Osborne, they are confident that they are in touch with people of modest means, who cannot dream of paying school fees. It does not occur to them that, with their own fond memories of grammar schools, they may be out of touch with state education as it has evolved over the past 20 years. Towards the end of May’s time there, Holton Girls’ Grammar School in Oxfordshire was turned into the comprehensive Wheatley Park School, and the transition was not, at first, a success.
Timothy drafted May’s first statement as Prime Minister, in which she said: “If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise . . . The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
This rhetoric does not exactly make May a puritan. She is an Anglican, which is an altogether more complicated thing. Her father trained for the priesthood in the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in West Yorkshire, which promulgates an austere and deeply felt Anglo-Catholicism, with roots in Christian socialism. The Prime Minister’s dress sense cannot be described as austere, but her attitudes usually are. At Mirfield, a monastic foundation, one gets up awfully early, in order to attend the first services before breakfast.
Boris Johnson is the least puritanical figure in British politics. He nevertheless helps to illustrate the rise of puritanism: respectable people often say how entertaining he is and even start laughing as they relate his exploits, but then remember how serious they themselves are and add that his amusement value is, naturally, a disqualification for high office. Johnson is a star performer in the theatre of politics, capable (as he showed during the 2012 London Olympics) of eclipsing his rivals, and this summer he helped swing the referendum result for Brexit. A senior figure in the Leave campaign said that when Johnson attacked President Barack Obama for coming to Britain and telling us how to vote, the polls moved in Leave’s favour, even though (or perhaps in part because) the attack was condemned by high-minded commentators.
Johnson was given the job of Foreign Secretary in order to help reunite the Conservatives, because he might be good at it and also because he had the wit, as soon as Michael Gove deserted his campaign, to recognise that May was going to win the leadership election. But the losing side in the referendum had immediately blamed Johnson for its defeat. It accused him of not only populism, but opportunism: telling lies, stirring up racism and wrecking the economy in order to seize power for himself. For the first time in his life, Johnson’s enemies didn’t just scorn him, they hated him.
Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.
Puritans cannot accept that it is permissible, or even praiseworthy, to draw a caricature in order to show what a person is really like. They possess a painful literal-mindedness. Their aim is to purify religion by stripping away the corruption of later centuries and getting back to the simple, honest faith of the first believers.
In the United States, a country founded by puritans, each president arrives promising to return the republic to a state of pristine perfection by cleansing Washington of crooked lobbyists. The new president’s mission is to protect the people from the politicians. After a while, it becomes apparent that the president is, after all, a politician, too, and the process starts all over again.
In Britain, the desire to purify the system recurs at similarly frequent intervals. Before the 1970 general election, the then Conservative leader, Edward Heath (the subject of A Singular Life, an absorbing new study by Michael McManus), promised to sweep away the “trivialities and gimmicks” that had characterised Harold Wilson’s six years as Labour prime minister. Douglas Hurd, who was working for Heath, said this declaration, made in the foreword to that year’s Tory manifesto, was entirely sincere:
There runs through it a note of genuine puritan protest, which is familiar in British history, sometimes in one party, sometimes in the other. It is the note struck by Pym against the court of Charles I, by Pitt against the Fox-North coalition, by Gladstone against Disraeli, by the Conservatives in 1922 against Lloyd George. It is the outraged assertion of a strict view of what public life is about, after a period in which its rules have been perverted and its atmosphere corrupted.
To many people’s surprise, though not his own, Heath won the 1970 election. Yet his puritanism was insufficient to guide him through the difficulties that followed, and in 1974 he was out of office again. His astounding bad manners to colleagues, which the following February helped bring about his downfall from the Conservative leadership (won by Margaret Thatcher), sprang in part from his puritanical refusal to accept that courtly behaviour, with its connotations of idleness and insincerity, could ever be worth bothering about.
Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Adventures of Boris Johnson”, out now in an updated edition (Simon & Schuster)