Puritanism is like sea water. When it meets resistance at one point, it promptly finds another route. I came to that conclusion during the Tory conference in Manchester. If you passed a couple of Tory representatives, they might well be discussing community. Every ‘community’, every diversity, that you could think of was in view, plus the ones which the Cameroons have invented. These days, the Tory tribe looks like the entrance queue to the Coliseum, under a late and decadent emperor.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad one, it does not signify the universal prevalence of permissiveness. Over the weekend, a photographer snatched a shot of the Prime Minister holding a wine glass, and the story immediately became a talking point. This is the Tories’ own fault. A couple of years ago, an edict was issued prohibiting the seniores from drinking champagne at party conferences: creates the wrong impression. Oh, for a shrewd cynic like Philip Hammond, to flatten the silliness by pointing out the fatuity of an instruction which no one would obey, and which turns Cabinet ministers into boys smoking behind the bike-shed.
I cast my mind back to the 1980s, when it was Labour who were prohibitionist over champagne, which was only served at Robert Maxwell’s receptions (he did have a pension fund at his disposal). In the early Nineties, there was a change. Suddenly, Labour politicians would drink champagne in public, without any shame. It must be admitted that this crucial development went unanalysed by the commentators. Perhaps we were too busy joining in. But it was a leading indicator. The Labour party was becoming electable.
Before that, in the triumphalist decade when Mrs Thatcher dragged Labour behind her chariot like captured Gauls in Caesar’s triumph, Alistair McAlpine would offer after-dinner refreshment to ministers and senior hacks at the party conference.