The history of England is one of an uneasy alliance between two traditions. The first is that of the Libertine, the fun-loving rake, which reaches its apogee in the character of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Politically, the Libertine is akin to the Civil War Cavalier: a romantic figure full of fun and adventure, willing to brook all the trauma and tragedy of life provided he is left alone.
The second is that of the Puritan, the austere number cruncher, devoid of fun but desperately trying to save your life or soul with ‘facts-facts-facts’, as Dickens’ Gradgrind – the archetypal Puritan – would have it. Politically, Puritans are the Civil War Roundheads: great talkers for rights, freedom and dignity, but give them an inch and they’ll cancel Christmas and close the theatres.
The Cavalier concept of liberty is particularly pertinent when addressing the issue of home. It is an old adage in England that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. This phrase has always meant that despite what ravages affect the outside world, what happens within the four walls of one’s house are strictly private affair, upon which not even the state has a right to intrude. Pitt the Elder alluded to this when he said:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter, but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
The Libertine takes these words to be sacrosanct, a universal call to mind your own business. The Puritan, by contrast, is that much-despised figure throughout the Anglosphere: the nosey parker, determined to make everyone as miserable as they are with their incessant spying.
In 2020, the Puritans won. No longer was home the cradle from which others should keep out; it was now a danger to a regime that deemed it inexcusable to think of anything other than the spread of germs. Home was where we were all expected to stay but were given strict rules to follow while there. The common person could no longer escape the ravages of the world through entering their front door. The living room itself was now a battleground and subject to the most base intrusions – chief of these being freedom of association, which was now no longer acceptable. To have people in the home meant you were dangerous, a conspiracy theorist, a granny killer. Flying in the face of hundreds of years of tradition, police could now enter your home and issue fines if they suspected you were harbouring that nightmare called ‘other people’. You could be locked up, brutalised and spied upon with impunity.
Not only did the Puritans win, but just when it looked as if things had swung back the other way, just as the Libertine spirit was reviving and gaining ground, one home in particular took centre stage with the ‘Lockdown Party Scandal’, giving the Puritans a much needed second wind. Yet this mess is entirely of the Prime Minister’s own making. One only has to read Boris’ old journalism to realise that he is by nature a Cavalier. He is part of a coterie in Parliament of people who place individual liberty at the heart of their politics and aren’t afraid to say the odd occasional irreverent thing to ruffle some feathers. In March 2020, his commonsense left him and he decided to become a Roundhead – at least publicly, and therein lies the problem. One can’t join the Temperance League and keep sneaking to the pub; one can’t tell the entire population, in no uncertain terms, that if they go out people will die, and then start the party when everyone’s back is turned.
This is the whole reason Boris’ position looks so shaky. He is a traitor to the two traditions. The Puritans hate him because he abandoned the Covid restrictions. The Libertines, his natural audience, hate him because he imposed them in the first place. So what’s the average lockdown sceptic to do? Occupy Parliament square until Desmond Swayne takes charge?
If there is one excuse that can be given for Johnson turning into Cromwell, it is that he has not been alone. The English-speaking world has been pretty disgusting during the pandemic years. Australia has reverted to its former status as a Prison colony, Canada has decided that it should make clear the differences between it and the United States by abolishing liberty altogether, and New Zealand has based its new look on North Korea. These were frontier societies in which people stood and fell by their own efforts; they were hardy and strong. Now they twitch behind curtains while their governments threaten them with fines. England, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out, is an outlier in this game. Our restrictions were lifted last July and barely touched since, despite a slight panic around Christmas. Even if one looks at out nearest neighbours, the Puritan strongholds of Wales and Scotland, one can see a stricter policy than we enjoy between the Thames and Hadrian’s wall.
It seems clear then that no matter how incompetent Boris is, there are worse people waiting in the wings. Almost all centre-Left parties called for longer lockdowns and tougher restrictions; they are the summation of the Puritan tradition. The people calling for Boris’s head are the same who cheered as masked zealots broke up barbecues and dispatched drones to spy on walkers. They supported the lockdowns and they wish we were still under lock and key. Unfortunately, this is the gallery Boris has spent two years playing to when he should have stuck to his own tribe.
It is very hard to support someone who abandons principle for arguments that are proving more specious by the day, who handed the keys to the kingdom to zealots and killjoys. I find very little difference between the Prime Minister’s home and mine: both should be castles for those who live inside and it should not be anyone else’s business what goes on between their walls. I do not wish to see fines issued or anything else. But how can one feel any sympathy for a Cavalier turned Roundhead, for a man who decided that he wanted to ruin my fun but continue to have his? During the height of the lockdowns, if you wanted to do anything slightly outside the rules you had to be very careful who you revealed it to lest the Gradgrinds of England reported you to the law. Now this spirit of paranoia has reached No.10 and a nation salivates and drools for blood. Perhaps that is the perverse victory of lockdown: it has turned us all into nosey parkers – Puritans by proxy in a world where advocating the most basic freedoms casts one as a dangerous libertine.