Puritans vs. Privateers: Good news for political journalism

The whole country is post-gramme…
Hail the new puritan
Righteous maelstrom
And all hardcore fiends will die by me
And all decadent sins will reap discipline 

– The Fall, New Puritan 

Most economic commentators are less than enthusiastic, but political journalists must be delighted at David Cameron’s reinvention of the Tories as the party of sound money and harsh economic medicine. 

In a recent piece in the Times, Carl Mortished was correct to suggest that the credit crunch has exposed an eternal faultline in the British psyche – between puritans and privateers.

A subsequent piece by Anatole Kaletsky sketched out the same divide in political and economic terms. You can adapt the specifics for your locale, but roughly speaking, the divide goes like this:

The Puritans

Key cheerleaders (according to Kaletsky):

  • The Tories, the German socialists, the European Central Bank, the Church of England, plus assorted Marxist economists.

Key puritan characteristics (according to Mortished):

  • “A quieter Christmas, spent at home around a tree smaller than the previous year’s.”
  • “Out of fashion since the 1980s.”
  • Promoted twice during the past decade.
  • “Your job is not yet threatened.”
  • “Happiest when part of something larger than themselves.”
  • Angry with the ‘family at the end of the road in the big house with the Christmas tree that gets bigger every year”.

The Privateers

Key cheerleaders (according to Kaletsky):

  • The Labour Government and the Liberal Democrats, the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve Board and the vast majority of Keynesian economists in every country – plus Barack Obama.

Key privateer characteristics (according to Mortished):

  • Christmas? ‘The last hurrah. . . a great binge of booze and half-price clobber.”
  • New Year? ‘Off to America for a week’s frolic in the snow.”
  • A decade of job-hopping, but out of work since December.
  • The wife manages a shop that sells cushions and candles.
  • Spent the past decade ‘bidding up the cost of everything from plumbing to school fees”.

Mortished could have added that the puritans are savers. As such, they are angry that the privateers have created such a mess that interest rates are tending toward zero. 

The privateers, of course, are debtors. They’re happy with declining interest rates -– but angry that the banks aren’t passing on the full benefit. They’re very happy indeed with Gordon Brown’s proposal of a two-year holiday on mortgage interest payments.

Hats off, then, to Mortishead and Kaletsky: they’ve identified the fault line that will define the forthcoming general election.

Notably, Mortished beautifully describes how Britain’s puritans regard that privateering family down the road. The curdled mix of envy, concern and disgust packs a real punch:

You fantasise that your neighbour is a crook. Charming, witty and good-looking in a louche sort of way, he sails through life living on the edge, taking risks that would cause your teeth to chatter. 

You wonder, guiltily, whether the credit crunch will finally sink him — until you remember that it might sink your own. That makes you more angry because you know that he enjoyed the boom, while you slogged and saved.

The only thing that Mortished doesn’t describe here is the fear and loathing that courses through the privateers’ waking hours as an economy based on credit and frippery shuts down.

Privateers live (and work) alongside puritans on every street in Britain. The over-exposed live cheek by jowl with the under-exposed.

The divide is fundamental. As Mortishead puts it: ‘Britain is shot through by the resentment felt by puritans against these pirate popinjays.”

It’s also political. Politicians will need to decide on which side their bread is buttered. So will editors.

Since the mid-1990s, we’ve been fretting about the absence of differences between left and right, Labour, Libel Democrat and Tory.

Now politics is reasserting itself. The time is right for political editors and journalists to move centre stage.

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