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Essay of the week: The New Puritanism

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If you have ever been in a car driven by someone who alternates repeatedly between accelerator and brake, making you jerk uncomfortably along, you will appreciate how change occurs in our society’s moral attitudes.

A sharp push on the brakes and a little help from the tabloid press is all those at the wheel of the bulldozer of government need to turn their personal prejudices into law. And alas, after a relatively sensible period of open-mindedness, Britain is on the brink of another bout of puritanism.

To illustrate the point about jerking back and forth between liberal and moralistic periods, consider the last two centuries. The Victorian era of prudery and (therefore) hypocrisy followed the unbuttoned Regency age. It was followed in its turn, after the catastrophe of the First World War, by the party mood of the Roaring Twenties. The interruption of another war led, by contrast, to 1950s: a decade of dreariness, constraint and a savage police crackdown on homosexuals, one consequence of which was the suicide of the mathematical genius Alan Turing.

But any revival of puritanism invites a backlash by more liberal and open-minded people, chiefly the young, who do not want to be told what they can and cannot do by finger-wagging nay-sayers. The reaction to the closed atmosphere of post-Second World War Britain was the 1960s, an epoch of triumphantly claimed liberty, which of course the moralisers blame for everything they consider to have since gone wrong.

The truth is that what actually happens during moralistic periods is virtually the same as what goes on in more liberal times; what differs is the lack of openness about people’s behaviour and the hidden nature of any harmful consequences. In moralistic periods, sin, crime and vice get pushed so far under the carpet that moralisers, believing (rather as children do) that what they cannot see does not exist, feel great self-satisfaction. The honesty of more liberal times, and the fact that everyone can then see harm when it occurs, affronts the moralisers; and they hasten to force it back into darkness.

This is exactly what is happening now. The most obvious example is the profoundly mistaken proposal to further criminalise the sex trade in Scotland, by making the purchase of sexual services a crime. Already in England it is a crime for anyone to buy the services of a person trafficked into sex work, whether or not the client knows that the individual is a victim of coercion.
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