Ed West’s drunken history of the English people is an eye-opener. Our ancestors were so permanently incapacitated it’s a wonder that we, their descendants, exist.
Still, for a social conservative like me, it’s a useful reminder that the arc of history does not bend towards ever-increasing social liberalism.
Indeed, the ancient right of every freeborn Englishman (and woman and child) to spend their lives in an alcoholic stupor has been progressively curtailed. Though we never went for outright prohibition like the Americans, we’ve gradually tightened the regulatory noose around our drinking culture — for instance, by restricting pub opening hours, imposing sin taxes and enforcing drink-drive limits.
Social pressure has been just as important as government action. The state never legislated against the ‘liquid lunch’ — which, within living memory, was a normal part of the working day. Not any more, though: the inebriated afternoon is now frowned upon in most industries — even journalism.
It’s not just booze. A generation or two ago, you could still smoke at your desk. Now you can’t even smoke in the pub. As for what some people used to do on their desks, #metoo has gone a long way towards de-sexualising the workplace. Not before time, of course — but it’s interesting just how far we’ve rolled back the libertinism of previous decades.
Take the Cuties furore. People aren’t angry because they see it as a sign of generalised decadence, but because Netflix violated a social taboo that has grown in strength in recent years. In the wake of institutional abuse scandals, we’ve become increasingly intolerant of adult creepiness towards the young and we police the boundaries of childhood with greater vigilance. A good thing too — but it does run counter to the ethos of the 60s and 70s.
Admittedly, on a few fronts, we’re still liberalising — same-sex marriage, for instance, or the spreading legalisation of cannabis. The internet has also facilitated a massive expansion in access to pornography. But the tide may turn on some of these developments too. While I don’t foresee any reverse on same-sex marriage, a new backlash on drugs is possible once the consequences of decriminalisation become clear. As for porn, the main barrier to greater control is technological feasibility; if a universal porn blocker were to become available, I think there’d be majority support for its implementation.
We’ve certainly accepted technological constraints on other freedoms — like the freedom of the road. Speed cameras, number plate recognition and congestion zones are just the start of it. How long before the steering wheel is taken out of our hands altogether, with Highway Code compliant robots doing all the driving? Again, I bet we’d be persuaded.
If you’ve ever wondered why most people have acquiesced to the extraordinary restrictions of the lockdown, it’s because governments were pushing on an already open door. The unspoken truth about the ‘permissive society’ is that we’ve had our fill of it.