Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Those new puritans

A righteous dissection of Poundland post-structuralists

Artillery Row Books

Andrew Doyle is a dangerous man, and this is a dangerous book. Don’t take my word for it: the bloke’s own mates think he’s one for the watching. Like the pal he tells us about who pegged him as “a fucking Nazi cunt”. Admittedly, vodka martinis had been taken and the friend’s evidence of fascist proclivities was Doyle’s vote to leave the EU and his satires of progressivism, but you can never be too careful.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened my copy of The New Puritans during a recent stay in hospital. I had lost patience with a John Grisham grabbed from the shop, which was largely concerned with how racist and stupid everyone is south of the Mason-Dixon Line. When did the gutsy master of Southern populist pulp turn into a sneering liberal bigot? A shift to the right was in order, so Doyle’s book it was. 

The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, Andrew Doyle (Constable, $28.99)

As Nazi polemics go, The New Puritans is something of a disappointment. It’s a better read than Mein Kampf and less esoteric than The Myth of the Twentieth Century, but it’s pretty light on the old blood and soil. It turns out Doyle isn’t a Nazi at all, just a bog-standard, run-of-the-John-Stuart-Mill liberal. The New Puritans, far from a tract on Aryan racial purity, is an admonition against authoritarian trends in identity politics. Boy, are there going to be some red faces at the next Britain First reading group.

A broadcaster and stand-up comedian, Doyle is also a recovering academic with a PhD in “Renaissance discourses of gender and sexuality”, which takes some recovering from. It has, however, gifted him an intimate insight into a political insurgency that, in just a few years, has seized the commanding heights of government, law, medicine, education, journalism, the arts and private enterprise.

The architects of this movement are “the new puritans” and their religion is critical social justice, Doyle’s term for what is more commonly known as wokeism. They are “a prohibitionist and precisionist tendency who seek to refashion society in accordance with their own ideological fervour”. Their zealotry, philistinism and spiteful exercise of power over others reminds Doyle of the Salem Witch Trials and the vicious little girls whose “lived experience” sent 19 innocent women to the gallows. 

Where Abigail Williams and her finger-pointing acolytes saw witches, their ideological descendants see racists and transphobes. They do so by applying a doctrine called intersectionality, which asserts interlocking systems of oppression as the basis of Western societies. They harness the power of social opprobrium to punish transgressors and sceptics. This is cancel culture — “retributive and performative mass denunciation in order to destroy lives and enforce conformity” — and today it rages on Twitter rather than a colonial settlement in Massachusetts. 

In addition to punishment, the new puritans exercise prior restraint by banishing speech they disapprove of as harmful, a practice known as safetyism. Doyle notes how routinely this involves the privileged imposing their preferences on the lower orders. “Imagine,” he ventures, “Debrett’s guide to etiquette having been rewritten by someone with a histrionic personality disorder.

Critical social justice, in Doyle’s analysis, is applied postmodernism

Doyle traces this “frenzy of conformity” to the place where midwit thinking goes for subsidy and midwit thinkers for pensions: higher education. Critical social justice, in Doyle’s analysis, is “applied postmodernism”. It turns out sending half our young people to ideological closed shops to be catechised in neo-Marxist critical theory by Poundland post-structuralists wasn’t such a great idea after all. Taught that reality is constructed through language and language is a tool for oppression, a generation of arts and social science graduates “have taken this ideology into adult life and the institutions they now occupy”. This has led to a “civilisational threat” under which “the objective is not to critique society as it is but to engineer an entirely fresh pseudo-reality through the imposition of limitations on language, thought and perception”. Again, the religious undertones are plain: “Theirs is a belief in the perfectibility of humankind.” 

An example Doyle gives of applied postmodernism is the NHS policy Annex B, which combines religious literalism with a zeal to inculcate the heathen. Since “the NHS accommodates patients by gender identity, not biological sex”, Annex B requires that “if a female patient complains that there is a man on her ward, she is to be told that this is not true; there are no men present”. The Jesuits used to say: “Give me the child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man.” The priests of the new religion say: “Give me a healthcare bureaucracy and some Stonewall training, and I’ll give you a woman too afraid to question the man in the next bed.”

Doyle has been so thoroughly slandered as a right-wing demagogue that you might expect The New Puritans to be one of those anti-snowflake polemics. However, he offers a conditional defence of Eighties PC culture, which he believes “achieved some genuinely progressive outcomes in terms of social consciousness without having recourse to the kind of censorial police intervention or the mob-driven retributive ‘cancel culture’ that we see today”. In fact, Doyle considers the heirs to the PC-gone-mad tabloid columnists of the 1980s to be the whiteness-gone-mad progressives of the 2020s, who seize on highly individual incidents, dubious anecdotes and obvious myths to peddle hysteria about societal doom. Like fear of crime rising as the frequency of crime drops, “the unremitting focus on victimhood has seemingly escalated as social attitudes have progressed”.

The more I read, the more I began to recognise myself

Doyle plays a Reverse Uno on his progressive critics, contending that they are the real reactionaries. Their ideology “encourages its followers to deny the progress that our commitment to liberal values has achieved”. The new puritans have “eschewed the traditional socialist goals of redressing economic inequality and redistributing wealth and replaced them with an obsessive focus on race, gender and sexuality”. Purported anti-racists and gender radicals have in fact “enabled rehabilitated racial thinking to flourish” and promoted “acutely conservative views of what it means to be male and female”. Those whose political awakening — and/or employment — hinges on resistance to long-defeated bigotries cannot acknowledge how successful that resistance has been in changing society. They would lose their purpose and their power. “Like the réactionnaires of the French Revolution”, Doyle surmises, the new puritans are “troubled by the transformations they have seen in their lifetimes and yearn for a return to the old ways”

Where I must part ways with Doyle is his confidence that the brakes can still be slammed on the Hell-bound handcart. “The armies of the unpersuaded,” he assures us, “are far more abundant than the new puritans would have us believe.” This is how you know Doyle is a liberal. Only a liberal could survey Britain in 2022, where tweeting off-colour jokes and statements of biological fact brings a police raid, and find reasons to be hopeful. If that isn’t bad enough, he reckons we need more “civil discussion” and to “find a way to learn again how to talk to each other”. No, no, no. I want to crush my enemies then troll them mercilessly on Twitter. 

Which leads me to my real problem with The New Puritans: it left me feeling, as the kids say, very seen. I started out nodding along to Doyle’s critique of people whose politics I loathe, sucking up all that sweet confirmation bias as he documented their lazy thinking, intolerance and lack of empathy for their opponents. But the more I read, the more I began to recognise myself. The more I had to reckon with how lazy, intolerant and hardhearted my own thinking has become. The more embarrassed I felt about mental fortifications like “my opponents are enemies of a free society”,their prescriptions will destroy Western civilisation” and all my other lazy self-justifications. When Doyle touts the need to “instill critical thinking at every level of our educational institutions”, I find myself wondering if they offer night classes.

The New Puritans is a book that refuses to pander even to its target audience, and for that I half-resented and half-admired it. It is a considered and insightful primer on a sinister new orthodoxy, its account terrifying but never alarmist, its commentary analytic without being drearily academic. The power of its call to arms lies in its being instead a call to debate. In that debate The New Puritans is a fusillade of uncompromising reason but reason with compassion. Andrew Doyle has written a masterful broadside against the woke that will also discomfit the anti-woke, proposing to both the radical notion that rather than being identities, we embrace our status as individuals. Told you it was a dangerous book.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover