Wokeism is Latter Day Puritanism
Today’s political conflicts replay past battles between Britain’s libertarian and puritan traditions, argues historian Nigel Jones
Behind the wave of Wokeism that has swept and is now swamping Anglo-American Culture, is a pattern that has recurred throughout British History since the early 17th century. This is the pendulum that regularly swings between periods of joyful Libertarianism and purse lipped Puritanism.
Puritanism takes it’s name from the Calvinist religious movement that arose during the Protestant Reformation, partly in reaction to the explosive cultural Renaissance of the Elizabethan era – the age of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ralegh and John Donne.
The familiar disapproving stern features of Puritanism are now ever more apparent behind such phenomena as Extinction Rebellion, the Trans movement, and Black Lives Matter
The Puritans exported their austere doctrines to America aboard the ‘Mayflower’, where they eventually became one of the building blocks of the USA, and briefly achieved political power in England after the Civil War in the forbidding guise of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth.
We all have a mental picture of the Puritans in action. Sombrely dressed in black and grey, smashing the statues of saints, preaching their varied versions of the scriptures, and policing and banning anything when they suspected people of enjoying themselves, from Christmas festivities, to theatres, to fornicating for pleasure rather than reproduction.The Puritans endeavoured to dictate what people could think, speak and write. If this rings any bells with Wokeism, that is surely not coincidental.
There was an inevitable vengeful reaction to this po faced culture of control and repression, and it soon came with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. King Charles II exemplified in his own libidinous person, with his myriad mistresses and tribe of illegitimate children, the loose culture of license that spread out from his court like a stain. This was the easy going Age of Lord Rochester and Nell Gwynn, so disapprovingly, if hypocritically, frowned on in the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. More darkly, the Puritan Regicides who had beheaded Charles’s father were hung, drawn and quartered along with Cromwell’s exhumed corpse.
The Libertarianism ushered in by the Restoration had a much longer run than the initial rule of Puritanism had enjoyed. It lasted through the Georgian Age of the 18th century, culminating in the decadence of the Regency bucks and Queen Victoria’s “wicked uncles”. Puritanism made it’s comeback with the accession of Victoria herself, with her eponymous reign infamous for it’s crinolines, covered piano legs , cruel persecution of that supreme Libertarian Oscar Wilde, and it’s massive hypocrisy – a constant adjunct of Puritanism when it comes up against the incontrovertible facts of life and human nature.
Neatly coinciding with the reign of Victoria’s despised eldest son, Libertarianism returned in the portly shape of Edward VII in the opening decade of the 20th century to which he gave his name. As during the Restoration, the ruling elite again set the tone of the Edwardian era with their shooting and hunting, their discreet adultery at country house weekends, and their lavish clubs and parties.
Partying and clubbing came to a sudden stop in 1914 with the First World War, but resumed at full throttle in the 1920s – the age of flappers, jazz, the tango, cocaine, and the vile bodies satirised by Evelyn Waugh. The pendulum swung back again in 1929 when the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression: a serious age of unemployment, austerity and anxiety, seductively characterised by the rise of those severely Puritan creeds of Fascism and Stalinist Communism.
After the suffering of the 1930s and World War Two and the grey, pinched, fun rationed years of the postwar Labour government, by the end of the 1950s an increasingly prosperous Britain had never had it so good and was ready to party again. The Profumo affair of 1963 was an early signal of the return of social and sexual Libertarianism, with it’s colourful combo of eroticism, crime, and louche behaviour among the upper crust.
The “Permissive Society” of the swinging Sixties followed, fuelled by drugs, rock music, sex, the decline of orthodox religion and a relaxation of the laws on abortion, divorce and homosexuality. Puritanism remained in full retreat for the rest of the 20th century until a disapproving reaction set in, only lightly disguised as political correctness.
The familiar disapproving stern features of Puritanism are now ever more apparent behind such phenomena as Extinction Rebellion, the Trans movement, and Black Lives Matter. As so often in the past, loud and articulate minorities, deeply embedded in the media, academia, and the establishment, are seeking to impose their intolerant view of how we should behave and what we should believe on the rest of us.
Puritanism is currently breaking out of it’s cramped cultural corner and may be overreaching itself as it seeks to seize control of the commanding heights of the state, turning once independent institutions such as the Police, the courts, and Civil Service inside out, and dumping free speech, Democracy, and History itself in the trash. Opponents of this naked power grab characterise it as the Cultural Marxism formulated by Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School in the 1920s, but it a much older phenomenon than that.
It is ironic that this Cultural Revolution is being presided over by a Cavalier Prime Minister who is himself the embodiment of Libertarianism made substantial flesh. Boris Johnson faces the grim, unsmiling Roundhead figure of Sir Keir Starmer – perfectly typecast as a finger-wagging Puritan Witchfinder General. Ironic, too, that demands are being made to pull down the statue of Oliver Cromwell, the founding father of Puritanism made stone. But logic and consistency were never the hallmarks of the judgemental nay sayers to whom we must all now bow the knee.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe