An unattractive byproduct of the credit crunch is a new puritanism that masks a much older phenomenon, envy. It seems the news editors of the popular press have instructed their staff to keep a keen eye out for anyone in the public eye seen to be enjoying themselves at a time of national peril when what is needed is an equality of sacrifice and misery.
That’s why we see pictures of Lord Snooty peering, eyes glazed, over a champagne glass above captions screaming: “How dare they? What do they think they are doing, behaving like pampered voluptuaries while hard-working families struggle to pay ever-rising gas bills?” It doesn’t occur to the neo-Jacobins that equality of sacrifice, though undoubtedly having populist appeal, is not a form of social justice. We do not all enter the age of the new austerity equally blameless and equally deserving of sympathy. There are wise virgins and foolish virgins, those who saved and lived within their means and those who gorged on credit. The Biblical lesson is that one is more deserving than the other; one may still eat à la carte while the other dines on takeaway pizza. As for the very rich they, like the poor, are always with us, and jealousy is unbecoming.
Worse than the new egalitarian-inspired puritanism is the revived vigour enjoyed in these straitened times by old-fashioned puritans. Sensing that their victims are weakened by adversity and vulnerable, they redouble their effort to impose a universal hair-shirted misery on the poor wretches.
The chief offenders are the anti-alcohol bores, kinsmen of the miserable anti-tobacco bores. Now that smoking is as close to illegal as it is possible to get, short of an outright ban, the triumphant legions of those who would make us good against our will are turning their guns on the drinkers.
Their latest scheme is that supermarket shoppers who buy alcohol should face a “walk of shame” to a dedicated checkout counter. The plan is being drawn up by ministers to curb Britain’s growing binge-drinking culture. Stores would have to create alcohol-only areas manned by specially-trained staff. The aim is to deter shoppers from making excessive purchases by putting them under the purse-lipped scrutiny of fellow customers.
So inured have we become to the crack-brained wheezes of our masters that this extraordinary proposal has excited little comment. Its true purpose is to punish and inconvenience those people who, with intolerable insolence, persist in exercising their free choice to drink as much as they wish within the privacy of their own home.
Eventually, closed circuit TV cameras will be installed in all houses and monitored night and day by the People’s Health Bureau, but in the meantime other means must be found to control drinkers.
With luck, however, the indomitable, defiant spirit of the British will shine through. I can guess from looking around at the cheerful, stoical faces of the shoppers at my local Morrisons that the walk of shame will quickly become an exultant celebration and a victory parade. Anyone joining the booze queue with knees buckling beneath the weight of two cases of Stella and a jeroboam of Charlie will be greeted with a round of applause.
In fact, the walk of shame could become the catalyst for a revival of the bulldog mentality stifled in recent years by the “Diana effect”, the maudlin sentimentality that has enriched the floristry trade and persuaded so many men to look in vain for their feminine side and think themselves inadequate to find it absent.
The great dustbin persecution, in which local authority apparatchiks prosecute householders who place their bins more than five centimetres away from the designated boundary or, worse, put plastic where paper should be, ought by now to have caused a popular uprising. The reason it hasn’t is that householders, each with separate lives to lead, are difficult to unite.
Get persecuted booze buyers together in a queue, however, and you have the makings of a seething unrest that could explode into rebellion.
It is not those who fare better than others during the recession who should be strung up, but those whose self-imposed purpose is to bully and boss the rest of us. Mind you, it so happens that with their cast-iron pensions paid for by us – the very people they victimise – they deserve to be skewered on both counts. Let us cry havoc and fashion our beer crates into barricades. v