What an awful title. Something we hacks are forever saying (along with ‘Make mine a double’ and ‘Is it still plagiarism if I change the names and set it in Singapore rather than Sheffield?’) is: ‘WE DON’T WRITE THE HEADLINES.’ How much worse, then, when it’s a book, and such an excellent one to boot: a right robust romp of a read — short but perfectly formed essays on how everything from bats to Best Picture has been weaponised by the monstrous regiment of modern scolds.
Of course, nagging is nothing new. Quentin Letts believes it came to this country with the Norman Conquest, remarking on ‘the centralised bureaucracy of the Domesday Book... an explosion of red tape from which England has never quite recovered’. And, indeed, France today, for all its yapping about liberty, has any number of petty laws: 40 per cent of music played on radio stations must be French; parents may prevent adult children from getting married; and, adorably, it’s illegal to carry live snails on the TGV unless they have a ticket. Less amusingly, the fusspot tendency of the French ruling class has led them to an almost parasexual enthusiasm for that El Dorado of bureaucratic bustling the EU, the alpha and omega of modern bossiness.
Back in the mists of time, those who told us what to do were what we’d call right-wing today — but of course they didn’t think of themselves as that. There were rich men and there were serfs, and that was the natural order. But as the divine right of kings and feudalism disappeared, freeing the mass of humanity from automatic deference, a new class arose to take over dressing-down duties. The tsars invented the gulags, but their ownership passed seamlessly to the Bolsheviks. This time, though, it was For Our Own Good.
Totalitarian regimes of both left and right are a result of the desire of certain warped individuals to boss others around, but accelerated to the point of madness, from China’s ‘re-education’ of the Uighurs to the fanatical policing of women’s freedom under theocracies. But democracy by its nature —the vote of a street-sweeper worth exactly the same as that of the most recent resident of No. 10 — emboldens, and hoi polloi raised under this splendid system are generally unable to see a snook without cocking it. In the USA, during Prohibition, for every bar closed, six speakeasies opened.
But even in the most robust democracies, those who seek to geld us for our own good are a constant pest. In this country we have the BBC, which has morphed from friendly Auntie Beeb — though, considering how it shielded Jimmy Savile, was really Dirty Uncle Beeb — to hectoring Nanny Beeb, telling us first to ‘wrap up warm’ and ending up instructing children that there are more than 100 genders.
The beauty of this book is that it doesn’t huff and puff and threaten to dob in anyone who thinks differently. We un-wokers must be careful not to veer into snowflake territory ourselves, and Letts refuses to clutch his pearls over the strip of grass placed on the statue of Churchill by the Antifa mob:
“Last time I looked I was not particularly Marxist, but Churchill’s grass Mohican made me laugh. Likewise, I loved the climate change nudists who glued their bums to the bullet-proof glass in the House of Commons. Please don’t dignify petty criminality by claiming it has caused us distress…but if you wrote MIFFED in a Mail Online headline, it might not have quite the pinch of FURY.
Elegant, muscular and witty, this book has a gorgeous line on every single page. But, still, that title. Seeing as how the future isn’t going to be, as Orwell predicted, ‘a boot stamping on a human face forever’ but rather a finger wagging in a human face forever, for the paperback might I suggest the altogether more mellifluous The Scold War?