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The pursuit of happiness

Boris Johnson issues a clarion call against the new Puritanism of the coming Brown era, in which risk, pleasure, bunking off, poetry and all forms of play will be imperilled

23 May 2007

4:50 PM

23 May 2007

4:50 PM

You’ve got to realise they would have done it. They would have gone right ahead and swept another priceless heirloom from the mantelpiece of history. They were revving up their bulldozers, ready to roar into the ancient and irreplaceable ecosystem. Another great tree would have been felled in the forest of knowledge, and the owl of Minerva would have fled in terror from her roost. Had it not been for a few romantic reactionaries, then the technicians who run our reductionist system of education — with the complaisance of the Labour government — would by now be halfway to the demolition of the ancient history A-Level.

The children of tomorrow, children less fortunate than our own, would have been deprived forever of the chance to get to grips with the emergence of Athenian democracy, or the transition of Rome from republic to empire, and future generations of 18-year-olds would never again have spent any time in systematic study of the events and personalities that have been programmatic of our modern European politics and civilisation.

When a new Dark Age falls, it is not always to the sound of Viking battle-cries and the tinkling of church windows. Sometimes it is the very governments themselves that go mad, and start disembowelling their own culture. If you inquire whimperingly how they can do it, how the ‘department for education and science’ could have allowed this mutilation even to be proposed, the answer is not just that they are barbarians, though that is certainly part of the problem.

The real trouble is that our rulers are Puritans — especially Gordon Brown, the man who has set the tone of government for the last ten years; and what I mean by Puritans is that they cannot see the beauty and point of an academic discipline unless it adds, in some crashingly obvious way, to the Gross Domestic Product of UK PLC. They are Puritans in the sense that they exalt WORK with all the mania of 1930s Soviet agitprop extolling the virtues of TRUD, with meaty-forearmed hammer-wielding women rolling up their sleeves and preparing to join the men at the lathe.

It is an axiom of Gordon Brown’s speeches, a point to which he endlessly returns, that work and work alone is the means by which people can raise their self-esteem and the esteem in which they are held by others; and though he is obviously right that unemployment is wasteful and cruel, Gordon continually forgets the objective of work. His trouble is that he is stuffed with Maxton and Marx, and shows no sign of having read Aristotle, and if he would only stop devising new taxes, and take down the Nicomachean Ethics, he would see from the first five pages that the objective of every human economic and political activity is not work; it is not money.

We do what we do because we hope to achieve happiness. Every skill and every pursuit and every practical effort or undertaking seems to aim at some good, says old Aristotle, my all-time hero, and that goal is happiness — not Gordon’s wretched TRUD. In his worship of work, and his Marxist obsession with money, Gordon Brown continually mistakes the means for the end. He does not understand that an educational system can be a eudaemonic triumph even if it encourages disciplines that add not a penny to national output.

It seems to be beyond him, and beyond Labour ministers, that the advantage of study can consist in the happiness engendered by knowledge itself; and though you can certainly argue, as I do, that we are likely to have a much stronger economy if young people have the intellectual and emotional satisfaction of understanding their civilisation, and how it evolved, that is not the point. The point is that these subjects are a joy and an end in themselves, and Gordon is presiding over a gradually more brutal Treasury-driven system of pseudo-utilitarianism in which the point is being lost.

That is essentially because he and his Brownites are Puritans, posers who turn up in suits when the dress is white tie. They dislike ornament, or anything that looks as though it might be lovely in itself and for no other purpose. They hate anything that looks like frivolity and pleasure, and that is why they have spent such huge sums, over the last ten years, trying to trammel and constrain the rest of the population. The Puritan mind likes control, and conformity, and rigid adherence to codes, and it likes wherever possible to substitute its own discretion for the judgment of individuals.

That is why Gordon Brown’s Whitehall — and who shall deny that for the last ten years he has squatted like a vast octopus over government? — has criminalised courses of human conduct at twice the rate of previous administrations, with 3,000 new offences, all of which must in theory be policed and punished if the law is not to be held in contempt. It is not just the obvious attacks on discretionary activities such as hunting, smoking, snacking, smacking, etc. This government is constantly on the sniff for anything that looks cavalier, or freebooting, or risk-taking, and of the hundreds of examples of Puritan bossiness I have noticed in the last year I would cite with especial plangency last week’s ghastly and draconian plan to tell cyclists they must keep to their cycle lanes or face fines.

The road is ours, Gordon, and don’t you tell us what to do. And stuff your laws on booster seats for 11-year-olds, and to hell with your ludicrous plans for Home Information Packs, a system by which the vendor must pay an official to confirm to the buyer the evidence of his own senses that yes, that is a garage, and yes, that is a tree in the front garden. As for the ID-card plan, my strong advice to the incoming Prime Minister is to can it before he faces a jacquerie of protesters objecting to the cost to the taxpayer and themselves.

It does not take much imagination, if you look at the recent explosion of legislation, to see the fiscal disaster that follows. There is a new law, for instance, against the import of Polish potatoes (Lord knows why: I thought we had a CAP). There is a law that says you must appoint a local key-holder if you install a burglar alarm. Whatever the rationale of these edicts, they require monitoring and enforcement; and enforcement means officialdom. It means, inter alia, a new race of burglar-alarm invigilators and publicly funded potato prodders poking around in our supermarkets in search of rogue Polish potatoes, and new officialdom means an increase in public-sector spending, to the point where 60 per cent of the employment in Newcastle is now in the state sector, and while that is electorally valuable for Labour it means higher taxes for everyone else.

The paradox, therefore, is that Puritanism leads to profligacy; and the only way we can supply Gordon with enough money to satisfy his Puritan obsession with regulation and control, is to scamper ever faster on our hamster wheels and thereby attempt to satisfy his Puritan obsession with work. We work ever longer hours to service the interest rate on our mortgages, an interest rate pushed remorselessly higher, incidentally, by the markets’ suspicion of the expansion of the public sector.

We work so hard, in fact, that we completely forget the point of our work, and we drift in a daze from the Tube or the train to the TV set, pausing only to raid the fridge, and British children become so obese and generally stressed that the government is now driven to the demented expedient of introducing ‘happiness’ classes in school, and thereby leaving less and less time in the curriculum for anything that is truly happiness-inducing, such as the study of Aristotle or advanced mathematics.

These Puritans genuinely seem to believe that our happiness will be just a function of the cash produced by our work, and so in the last 30 years an
ever-growing proportion of British women have been ‘incentivised’ or socially gestapoed into the workplace, on what seems to me to be the dubious assumption that the harder a woman works, the happier she will be, when I am not sure that is true of women or anyone else. The more closely we identify our happiness with our work, and the more we rate our achievements by the size of the numbers on our payslips, the more depressed we are likely to get, because the wretched truth is that differentials have been rising under this government, and status anxiety has been growing.

The colossal expansion in the numbers of female graduates is in many ways a marvellous thing; but it has boosted the well-documented process of assortative mating, by which middle-class graduates marry middle-class graduates and thereby entrench their economic advantages, pooling their graduate incomes to push up house prices and increase the barriers to entry for the rest. The result is that in families on lower incomes the women have absolutely no choice but to work, often with adverse consequences for family life and society as a whole — in that unloved and undisciplined children are more likely to become hoodies, NEETS, and mug you on the street corner.

Of course I am in favour of women working, and the world would be far nicer if women ran it, but I sometimes wonder if they — we — really want to work quite so hard. Far from reminding us of the limits of money, and work, in the production of happiness, the New Labour Puritans have encouraged us to value nothing else, and that is why it is now time to have done with them.

Po-faced, pompous, prudish, pedantic, they are simultaneously money-grubbing and obscenely profligate. They have created an economic system whereby families are bullied to work ever harder to generate the tax revenue needed to service the vast and growing Labour vote-bank in the public sector, so that one way or another we are all working for the state.

They just do not understand that the point of work is not to add to Gordon Brown’s tithe barn, but to have the time and freedom to bunk off, read a book, play with the children, do a picture (no matter how useless), write a poem (no matter how bad), draw up plans for your expedition to the Mato Grosso or just sit and get sozzled in the sun. They do not understand the point of economics or the point of life. They have no concept of the limits of government, and in their narrow GDP-obsessed way they are a threat to the transmission of the glories of our culture from one generation to the next. In the words of Hesiod, who will be rarely off the lips of the coming Conservative government, they are fools who know not how much the half is greater than the whole, nor what blessedness there is in mallow-grass and asphodel. In fact, I doubt these Puritans would even know what an asphodel was, and the real scandal is that they are not giving the rest of us the time and the chance to find out.

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