The assault on pleasure

Is a new Puritanism on the march?

James Murphy

Topics Politics

That the maximum boat-speed on a famous Cumbrian lake has now been set at a stately 10 miles per hour may not seem like a throbbing issue in itself. And, probably, many living in metropolitan UK would instinctively conclude that such a restriction would be better for the environment, safety, peace and quiet, and so on. The fact that the Cumbria Tourist Board and local hoteliers are claiming that the new speed limit is having a ruinous effect on holiday trade has hardly made front-page news. Even if it did, one wonders whether the chattering classes would notice – or care enough to change their view.

At the Future Foundation, we are ready to lay enormous symbolic significance on to the battle of Lake Windermere. The marketing services community is slowly realising that a new culture of regulation and restraint is busily corroding consumer access to so many markets. Individuals too are facing inhibitions to modes of consumption that only a few years ago would have seemed ordinary, harmless, unquestionably fun. It is getting harder and harder to sell certain things, especially in markets with an indulgence dimension, and ever trickier to procure them.

This ‘assault on pleasure’ takes two interactive forms.

Firstly, public authorities – from the Lake District National Park Authority upwards – are, often driven by the best of motives, introducing more formal regulation into more aspects of our lives. The Scottish Executive is to ban smoking in public places. A health authority in Norfolk has banned a famous fast-food chain from giving free vouchers to hospitalised families. A school in Shropshire has banned pupils from bringing birthday cakes on to the premises. As you look around at common-or-garden politics today, it’s not hard to find the itch-to-prohibit being noisily scratched by important people everywhere.

Secondly, there is a new strain of moral opprobrium spreading through the body social. We all have an ever-swelling inventory of things we feel we ought not to do – both because lobbies or pressure groups suggest they damage the common good and because our friends might like us less if they knew we did them. Green campaigners tell us to question whether we really ought to take long-haul flights. Health campaigners invite us not to give sweets to one another. Safety campaigners insist we drive at much lower speeds. There is a censor at every corner.

It is hard to deny that a new Puritanism is abroad. A national study run by the Future Foundation in 2005 has found that nearly half the country now thinks that the government should ban chocolate-vending machines in schools and hospitals. Around 40 per cent of us now agree that jeeps and four-wheel drive cars should not be allowed into city centres. Perhaps most eerie, is the finding that 30 per cent of us now endorse the proposition that a pregnant woman found smoking in a public place should be given a caution by a police officer.

To some, all this will seem like progress, evidence of a society with the maturity to discipline excess and to contain indulgence of all kinds. And it is not easy for anyone to argue that the environment can take care of itself or that children do not need better food or that speed is danger-free. Majorities of common-sense support can naturally form in favour of many of the new restrictions and restraints.

But it is the apparently tentacular reach of modern regulation and the sheer unchecked energy behind it that should give us pause. In five years’ time, will giving sweets to children be tugging the same moral tripwires as smacking does today? Will all office Christmas parties, by diktat, be shandy-only? Will tourists for Petra or Machu Picchu be booed as they arrive at Heathrow to board their flights? Will your Friday night Bacardi Breezer come with a Department of Health beer-mat decorated with a drawing of a diseased liver? Will a new law ban angling because fish might be able to feel pain? The evidence of the past few years hardly suggests we are holding hyperbolic thoughts here.

We are not arguing that the future will bring no perfectly sensible changes to attitude and behaviour. But that might be more by luck than detached judgement. For we live today in something of a quiet chaos of political power and practical authority. In a time drained of ideological struggling where the macro-economy is well run by steady-as-she-goes technocrats, policy-makers of all kinds are in a constant search for something valuable to do. At the same time, single-issue lobbies press their claims with a moral superiority which the media – awash with disdain for the doings of the conventional political class – are generally happy to endorse. It seems arrogant to reject the principled case mounted by nutrition campaigners, anti-alcohol groups, GMO protestors and road safety lobbies. Policy-makers thus fall in line.

This universe of one-issue agit-prop has one abiding, perhaps under-noticed feature. And that is what we might call insatiable incrementalism. As restraints on behaviour are ever more formalised in the name of the common good, so lobbies have a habit of not disappearing. Indeed, even though the world, by their lights, may have been measurably improved by the success of a particular campaign, their politically monotone clamour can remain as loud as ever.

The Office of National Statistics might well tell us that between 1998 and 2004 there was ‘little change in the proportions of men and women exceeding the daily benchmarks’ for alcohol consumption. The World Health Organisation might well add that alcohol consumption in the UK is running at less per capita/per annum than in France, Germany or Spain and that we have less cirrhosis here than in any of those countries. But you would hardly get this impression from the websites of alcohol-anxiety movements. Alcohol abuse is a social evil, and temperate drinking should be encouraged. But can the lobby groups really cope with the possibility that things are not actually getting any worse and may even be getting a little better? Under what conceivable conditions will any such lobby simply declare their war over, pack up and go home?

The ‘assault on pleasure’ seems to be rooted in a myth of decline. Life is not as good as before. Social problems are multiplying and intensifying. Too much individualism and free choice – and certainly too much consumerism – are depleting our stock of spiritual resources…and so on. Versions of these pessimisms are to be found in much of the learned commentary that is offered about life in Britain now. In Richard Layard’s recent Happiness – Lessons from a New Science, the distinguished economist tells us that ‘despite all the efforts of governments, teachers, doctors and businessmen, human happiness has not improved’ – the fault variously of competitive individualism, too much divorce, too much TV, too much secularism, and something called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Such statements are taken as superior wisdom, and they reinforce attempts to regulate, restrict and restrain.

Any one of us can reach a dispassionate view as to whether a speed limit on Lake Windermere is a good thing or a bad thing. And many good instincts are at work in all the debates we have about nutrition and drinking and smoking and hunting with dogs and global warming and children’s wellbeing. But maybe we can feel too that regulatory impulses are spreading into too many crannies of our lives; that there is too much randomness and incoherence in the way certain behaviours are being stopped or discouraged; that there is in the air the unmistakeable pungency of puritanical bossiness.

A quarter of us now agree that only a limited number should be allowed to visit the Lake District each year. Just how and where and when will this overheating culture of inhibition come to a sensible close?

James Murphy is Director of Model Reasoning and Associate of the Future Foundation. He is co-directing the Assault on Pleasure project (for further details see Email

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today