This article first appeared in the Yorkshire Post newspaper on April 5th 2010, and can be seen on the Yorksire Post website
During the English Civil War, Parliament really did ban Christmas. The dominant puritan faction had worked themselves into a moralistic lather about the festivities that accompanied the twelve days of Christmas. All that feasting drinking, dancing and merry-making; no good could come of it. Under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, a government that was as close to being a military dictatorship as poor old Merrie England has ever experienced, troops roamed the streets looking for signs of inappropriate feasting: mince pies and plum puddings were seized.
The puritans who controlled the government had an issue with a lot of things that people rather enjoyed: “Cardes, Dice, Tables,” (a board game similar to backgammon), “Boules, Tennisse”; all these were frowned upon and proscribed. Horse-racing, cock-fighting and bear-baiting. Stage plays (“if we flock to Theatres to gase upon playes, we walke in the Counsell of the ungodly”); football. There were fines for swearing and blasphemy. Taverns were closed. Adultery and fornication became capital offenses, though this was never enforced in Britain (there were, however, executions for adultery in puritan New England).
Historical parallels are never exact. Nevertheless, the current government – the New Labour Project – could be cast in a rather puritanical light. Since coming to power, Labour has passed over 4,000 new laws: a new offense that citizens may commit has been created for every day that the current government has been in office. And there is just a little something of the Oliver Cromwell in Gordon Brown. Cromwell was a forceful man of action, a great cavalry commander and a successful general. He also came increasingly to believe that he was the Lord’s instrument (always a worrying sign) and he was never able to control his temper. Cromwell – that supposedly great defender of Parliament – created what we call the ‘Rump’ Parliament, by kicking out all of the members of parliament whose views were not in harmony with his own (something that contemporary parliamentary leaders must view with a certain wistfulness). He later threw out the rest of the Rump for failing to do what he wanted at the time. As he did so he famously lost his temper, kicking at the floor of the House, calling members ‘whoremasters and drunkards’ and finally calling on his musketeers to eject the Speaker of the House: ‘Fetch him down!’ It is not, as I say, an exact analogy, but recent news of Gordon Brown’s outbursts of temper have a certain resonance.
Life under new Labour has also not been much fun lately. It all looked very optimistic for a while (Things can only get better! No return to boom and bust! Spend, spend, spend!), and then it all went rather sad. We find ourselves entangled in legislation and enmeshed by a nanny state and – whoops! – just emerging from a deep recession which was only prevented from becoming a full-blown depression by the apparently essential expenditure of vast amounts of cash that we don’t actually have.
If I were Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg, I would not be too quick to say, ‘It would be irresponsible to suggest that we have anything to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ That approach may be very laudable, but it is not, I’m afraid, what we really want to hear.
The person who replaced Oliver Cromwell was, of course, the ‘Merrie Monarch’: Charles II, a man who could no longer harbour any illusions about ‘the divine right of Kings’ – since his own father, Charles I, had been defeated and executed – and whose rather easy-going personal morals happily persuaded him that it was not his position to pass judgement on his fellow man. The nation got its fine clothes out of the coffers where they had been stored during the monochrome period of puritan cultural repression, and started to enjoy itself again. When Charles returned to England from Holland to take up the throne, diarist John Evelyn recorded the event: “the ways strewed with flowers, the bells ringing, the street hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine, [. . .] trumpets, music and myriads of people flocking . . .” Under the new monarchy, theatres and taverns reopened, music flourished – and no doubt the nation once more took up a number of reprehensible pastimes.
If I were David Cameron and Nick Clegg, I would promise some ‘happy times’ and steer clear of the doom and gloom. I would, if necessary, dress myself up in the frock coat, flowing black curls and debonair moustache of Charles II, and I would start going out with the famous actress, Nell Gwyn.
OK, maybe not that last bit.
We all know about the difficulties ahead, but we do like to feel that things may really get better. We like to believe that there may be some cakes and ale, even if only at Christmas.