Letter From England 3: The Puritan Hypothesis In British Politics


Charlie Elphicke is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Dover and Deal. This makes him my Member of Parliament. On Friday the 3rd November 2017, he discovered – via the media, he says, not from any official notification – that he was suspended from the Conservative Party, and that the Police had been asked to investigate him. No reason for this was given. However, Mr Elphicke’s name was on a confidential list, compiled by Central Office, and immediately leaked on social media, of politicians said to be unable to keep their hands to themselves.

Nothing more has been said about him in the news. Speaking for myself, I know him hardly at all, but find it unlikely that he has committed anything that would once have been thought a criminal offence. It is conceivable – and I have no private information on this point – that he has cast the occasional lewd glance at a member of the opposite sex. He may even have issued an invitation to more intimate contact. But I do not find it conceivable that he has taken part in any sexual act without the consent, as reasonably understood, of the other party. Assaults of any kind require a lack of forethought I have never detected in Mr Elphicke. I do not hold him in high political regard. On the other hand, he is the best representative my constituency has had in the past twenty years, and I look forward to his continuation in this role at least until 2022.

And that is nearly all I have to say about Mr Elphicke. If you want more fact, you must look, as I must, on the news websites. My real purpose in writing is to give an answer to a question that may be expressed in the language of ordinary people as “What the **** is going on in this country?” We are approaching a set of interlocking crises in our departure from the European Union. We have a bloated state machinery eating more than the most rapacious taxes can bring to its table. We are importing enough welfare claimants every year to fill a large town. That, plus our lunatic foreign policy, has given us a campaign of domestic terrorism and a police state. All this, and more – and the people in charge are vanishing into a holiness spiral. Things that, until a few years ago, might have provoked a bored rolling of the eyes, are being made matters for resignation and even police inquiry. What is going on?

The simple answer is political correctness. A new class has come into power, and is trying to re-mold human nature. How we vote has no bearing on who is employed in the bureaucracy, in education, in the media, and increasingly in the formally private corporate sector. These people are the ruling class. They are united by common interests and by a shared outlook. So long as the present order of things endures, they are irremovable.

I will pass over the more conspiratorial theories. Their ambition, as said, is to re-mold us. They want us to be good as they conceive The Good. They want us not to think too well of ourselves – not, that is, unless and until we have been made good. When that time arrives, we shall not be a free people living in our own undisputed land according to our traditional ways. But we shall then have earned our places at the gigantic love feast our rulers are preparing.

To be sure, this puts them at war with most tradition – and, in large degree, with human nature. They fight these wars by a tidal wave of propaganda, and by hounding out of their jobs anyone who resists them, or simply fails to think like them. Where that is not enough, they have already taken over the Police and the administration of justice, and will use the criminal law to beat down dissent. They are at war with tradition and human nature. Of necessity, as well as in practice, they are at war with liberty.

I turn now to the further question of what motivates these people. Again leaving aside the more conspiratorial theories, there are two main answers. The first is the Cultural Marxist Hypothesis. According to this, the Orthodox Marxists viewed seizure of the means of production as all that was needed for progress to their Heaven on Earth. After the Great War, this assurance became less compelling, and various kinds of revisionism came into fashion. Antonio Gramsci, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and many others – the generality of their view is that progress requires taking over the means of cultural transmission and establishing a hegemony that will bring on a transformation of all other relationships. Roughly twenty cycles of undergraduates have passed through universities dominated by the Cultural Marxists. The present order of things is a natural consequence.

The problems with this hypothesis as stated is that there is only a loose fit between the teachings of the men just mentioned and the obsessions of our ruling class. They were sexually liberal in ways that the persecutors of Charlie Elphicke must think as “inappropriate.” They were socialists, and our ruling class is happy to preside over a system of market corporatism. They believed in racial equality – but were not noticeably opposed to smoking and eating and drinking. Nor are they likely to have approved of the vast child welfare bureaucracy their supposed followers have created. What would Herbert Marcuse have thought of Harriet Harman? Not, I think, very much.

This brings me to the second answer, which is the Puritan Hypothesis. Rightly considered, this does not reject its alleged rival. What it does instead is to provide a deeper explanation. It begins with the observation that has been, for at least the past five hundred years, in England, and then in Britain, and then in Britain and America, a substantial number of intelligent people who believe they know better than ordinary people what is The Good, and that they have both the duty and the right to have their way by making everyone else feel guilty about their nature as human beings.

Now, this is not a product of any religious doctrine. The conflation I have often seen of Puritanism with Calvinism does more to obscure than to explain the hypothesis. If we want to write a history of Botany, we need to know who wrote what and who read it and what eventual influence it had. Where the Puritan strain in our history is concerned, the actual opinions of the Puritans in any one age are of limited importance. In the great majority of cases, opinions are not the cause of particular dispositions. They are a symptom of particular dispositions – which are themselves products of deeper cultural forces, or are perhaps genetic.

The function, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of what we loosely call Calvinism was to produce a shared language for a disposition that already existed, and an ideology that legitimised the actual or attempted political supremacy of those possessed of that disposition. In political terms, it was a failure. Puritanism was checked in England after 1660 by a set of laws and policies that kept anyone away from power who was inclined to take Calvinism seriously.

However, this was not the end of the story. The next Puritan advance came after about 1850, and had little to do with Calvinism. Its legitimising ideology was “social improvement.” This was often expressed in wholly secular terms, and was even opposed in some of its measures to religious belief. People who would once have justified their drive to power by talk of seeking the Lord now spoke about the declining birth rate and the need to maintain Britain as a great power. Often, they were Darwinists. Sometimes, they were atheists.

It is the same with our own Puritans. Ideologies and religions come and go. What remains more constant within a stable population is the balance of dispositions. During the 1970s, Mary Whitehouse and her friends were undoubted Puritans. They wanted an end to the social liberalism that had followed the Second World War. But they were religious Puritans in an age that had no time for traditional religion. The successful Puritans never looked in The Bible. Instead, they took up and shaped the doctrines of Cultural Marxism into their legitimising ideology. Men and their books were dragged out of the obscurity in which they might otherwise have remained, and were put to uses they might not themselves have had in mind. The restored Puritan ascendancy in Britain and America has nothing to do with the religious disputes of the Reformation. Harriet Harman believes in gay marriage. Oliver Cromwell was a chain smoker. They have nothing in common but a particular disposition. Bring them face-to-face, and each would itch to persecute the other. They are Puritans not because of their form, but because of their possibly innate substance. The latter is unchanging across the generations. The former depends on circumstances.

Therefore, the persecution of Charlie Elphicke is at hand. He is the victim of a Puritan holiness spiral. For the early Protestants, this began by denying that indulgences were mentioned in The Bible. Once this became too familiar to be exciting, the debate shifted to bishops and church establishments. Each moral entrepreneur tried to jump over the others, until they ended with the Anabaptist tyranny of John of Leyden. Our own cycle began, I think, with Stephen Lawrence and the discovery of “institutional racism,” and has now reached the point where sexual banter will soon be punished as if it were rape. The feminists are our Anabaptists. What each cycle has in common is the obsessive search for error, and its painting as sin, and the competitive display of those who think themselves most without sin. This is sad for the lecherous inebriates who traditionally get elected to Parliament – I am, by the way, not discussing Mr Elphicke here. But they should have seen it coming. Perhaps they deserve it, so far as they have done a shocking job of choosing and controlling their underlings.

I have two further points to make. The first is that, if the moral environment of England has at present no room for God, our Puritans are still in need of a certain religiosity. They have their martyrs and their rituals, and they set the Police on anyone who makes too much fun of these. They also feel a need for self-mortification. The books they read at university preached the case for socialist equality. They all have, or are desperate to get, rather cushy jobs and pensions in an economic order that, for the rest of us, resembles a game of musical chairs. They claim to despise inherited wealth, but give work to an army of tax lawyers to keep what they have for their own children. They abominate racial prejudice, but live in white enclaves. They are hypocrites. At some level, they feel guilty.

I have never, I grant, been a fan of exercise. Nevertheless, I feel there is an dash of mortification in all this long-distance running that so many of our rulers take up. Running more than a few hundred yards is painful. It sometimes causes death. They do it, even so. Those who run farthest expect, and sometimes get, the kind of veneration once given to stylite monks in the Syrian desert. And public exercise is a means of displaying virtue. Anyone who really cares about spastic children in Peru has only to write a cheque and keep his mouth shut – “[W]hen thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” The preferred option among the ruling class is to nag others into paying via sponsorship forms, while the projector puts on a sad face and expensive sports clothes and gives interviews to the ruling class media.

But I digress. My second further point is how these people can be defeated. This will not happen by way of a frontal assault. As said, the ruling class is irremovable within the present order of things. But I return to the example of 1660. Calvinism was not formally refuted. The Restoration Monarchy instead limited its employment of Calvinists. The Church was purged. The Army was shut down. The next thirty years were not the most edifying period in English history. But there was an end to holiness spirals. What I am saying is that the economic base of our present ruling class must be destroyed. The BBC and the universities must be shut down. So too the many bureaucracies of control. So too the mass of fake charities funded by the taxpayers. Corporate privileges must be ended. The remaining organs of the ruling class should be ruthlessly purged. Perhaps a hundred thousand people should be ejected from their cushy jobs and left scrambling for work in telemarketing centres. Let this be done, and the moral environment of England will be transformed in a month.

So to my conclusion, and to my closing advice to Charlie Elphicke. Let us assume he can survive his present difficulties and remain in Parliament. His best revenge, and his best service to the people, will not be to start speaking in the terms I have outlined above. It will instead be to discover a tender regard for the taxpayers. He will not bring down his enemies by denouncing them for what they are. But much good work can be done at the margins by contesting every grant of public money, and by denouncing every inflated salary.

Yes, a conservative Conservative MP – that would be a man worth voting for in 2022.

Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.

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