Why the Woke are the new Victorians
The age of the dandy is giving way to that of the prig
In my first ever job it was quite common for the whole office to go out together and drink three pints at lunchtime. We did this maybe twice a week or more. Sometimes we’d drink more and stumble back, trying to hammer out a coherent sentence on the keyboard. Turning up to work smelling strongly of alcohol was barely commented on. Even falling asleep in the office after being wrecked the previous night was sort of fine, as long as you vaguely got your job done.
That was only 20 years ago, but I’m pretty sure that someone who went for a lunchtime straightener two or three times a week today might be considered to have a slight problem.
Attitudes change with the generations. Young people have always been a mystery and disappointment to those who have entered the great happiness slide of middle age; the young are much worse behaved than us, they lament, they are less knowledgeable. Today we are faced with a strange new situation, though, where the young are far more sober than us. Sober and serious. Even as party season 2021 begins, it’s clear that something has changed in our attitude towards drink.
This shift in attitude towards alcohol is something Zoe Williams wrote about recently with an all-too-familiar mixture of wistfulness and regret, looking at that now alien-feeling period around the turn of the millennium.
Journalism has always tolerated alcoholic excess, attracting the sort of personalities who exude sparkling wit in their first few glasses and end up tragic grotesques and bores in later life. But the media at that time was not even exceptional. Wolf of Wall Street was a caricature, but the world of finance was also far more excessive than it is now; after the film came out, a friend in the sector told me that there was a huge surge in applications from young men, and he lamented that they were going to be sadly disappointed because they’d missed that boat.
It's not just drink or drugs. On a wide range of issues, from sex to animal cruelty to health, we are witnessing a sort of moralising energy not seen since the early 19th century. Rather than describe us as Generation X and Zoomers, it might be more accurate, as Tom Holland suggested, to talk of Regency men and New Victorians.
People disagree on whether social change is linear or cyclical, but moral attitudes do seem to follow certain patterns, just as with the economy where seven fat years are followed by seven lean ones (indeed the hemline index suggests that the two things are linked). Perhaps, after the debauchery of the fin-de-millennium period, it is inevitable that we enter a newly moral age, just as the generation of the 1830s saw it.
Post-war alcohol consumption peaked around the turn of the century, before entering a steady decline, especially among the younger generation. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, and while some probably relates to immigration, it may also be a more organic reaction to parents, a fear of public humiliation through social media, or greater reliance on medication. This generational difference is also found in France, where the average person drinks about a third as much wine as they did in the 1950s.
It’s not just drinking. My children, like most of their generation, are shocked and scandalised to see a grown-up occasionally smoke outside at a late-night party; I have to explain that my parents smoked inside the house all day long. We smoked in cinemas, trains and planes, and before my time, on the Tube. Many of my parents’ generation smoked in the car; they drank in the car, for that matter.
Then there is the tremendous change in attitudes to animals. It’s not just hunting foxes, but more organic moral shifts, so that now only someone who self-identifies as a total wanker would pose with an elephant or lion they’d shot, something completely normal 30 years ago. Public morality would be outraged.
Sex is more complicated, because there is dispersion; more people have multiple sexual partners, but more people are celibate, too. Sexual identity is also sacred, and shaming is itself considered sinful (even though western society has never been so obsessed with shaming).
Yet there is no question that sexual license has reached its peak, and there are signs of a new wave of sex negativity. The raunchiness of the 2000s, the normalisation of lap-dancing and to some degree paying for sex on foreign trips, is more morally unacceptable to today’s climate than the culture of the 1950s would be. Two decades ago, it wasn’t unknown for businesses to take clients to strip clubs, something unimaginable today.
Social mores have become far stricter in other ways, most noticeably against racism and homophobia. Sometimes things are outlawed by government, sometimes by custom, but what is to some ‘political correctness’ is to others what Norbert Elias called the ‘civilising process’. Catcalling, once pretty common, is now far more unacceptable; even ‘bird’ might get you in trouble.
At football matches twenty years ago it was quite common to hear ‘does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ if Brighton were playing. Even that was an improvement from 20 years previously, when racist abuse was common.
The new moralising urge is similar to what happened in Britain 200 years ago. Prince Albert, the epitome of Victorian morality, was responding to his own father, a notorious lady’s man and aristocratic wastrel; like many raised in this sort of unstable environment, Albert wanted nothing more than a homely life surrounded by lots of children, spaniels and a warm fire. It’s a cliché, but it often seems that some of the most socially conservative 20-somethings are the children of divorce, reacting against the wild bohemianism of Generation X.
Queen Victoria was also reacting against her own father and uncles, almost all of whom were womanisers and degenerates, the worst of them being the Prince Regent himself. The man who would give his name to the period used to take 200 drops of opium a day, and on his wedding night got so drunk he fell into the fireplace in the bedroom. Grossly overweight and a ruinous spendthrift, the prince might have been widely despised but he also came to epitomise a scandalous age. The generation that followed had had enough.
As with our own, the pre-Victorian period was notorious for drinking. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger consumed six bottles of port a day, but he wasn’t regarded as an especially heavy drinker. Gambling and promiscuity were common, and it became known for men like Lord Malden, who famously bet 1000 guineas that none of his friends could seduce his mistress, the actress Mary Robinson (he lost).
Then the new moralists came in, like our age bringing greater tolerance for minorities but also curbs on people’s behaviour and freedom. Restrictions on Nonconformists were lifted in 1828, those against Catholics the following year. The Factory Act of 1833 limited child labour because the nanny state fanatics said it was ‘cruel’ to send young children into dangerous mills and mines. Slavery was also abolished the same year, thanks to the PC brigade.
Then in 1834 the usual pinkos put an end to gibbeting, while killjoys also banned cock fighting and bear baiting in 1835 – the old moralists agitated about animal cruelty just as my generation are berated by their children for eating meat.
The lefties had already banned burning to death for forgery back in 1790, and on top of this you could no longer be hanged for taking rabbits from a warren, cutting down trees or ‘consorting with Gypsies’.
The Victorians were also quite ‘sex-negative’, and that era saw the emergence of fun-sounding groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice. They got results, though, and out-of-wedlock births halved in the second half of the 19th century.
Ironically, just as those pushing for empire were the forebears of today’s sanctimonious decolonialists, Victorian moral campaigns against homosexuals were led by moralising Nonconformists, forerunners to today’s progressive campaigners. Acts such as the Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing ‘any act of gross indecency with another male person’ were put forward by radical MPs, not by Tories. Quaker families who were involved in those early campaigns against sexual impropriety today often bankroll the moral campaigns against racism. The same urge to improve the world drives them, the same sanctimony.
No more would London be home to the 20 ‘Sodomitical Clubs’ it boasted in the 18th century, where men might ‘withdraw into some dark Corners to perpetrate their odious Wickedness’. Similarly, I’m not sure if the debauched aristocratic societies popular with Tory cabinet ministers in their youth will survive the new age.
Even education has gone through this moralising process. Secondary schools in the age of Grange Hill were a terrifying place. When I was at school, our nearest rival regularly had riots and numerous teachers were assaulted; the headmaster at a school three miles away was murdered at the gates.
Today London comprehensives seem like far more ordered places, whether the ethos is progressive or conservative. Schools like Michaela are following in the tradition of Thomas Arnold, who was reacting to a situation where, between 1768 and 1832 there were 21 full-scale revolts in English public schools, many involving weapons and gunpowder and leading the local militia to intervene. Children were allowed to smoke tobacco, flogging and bullying were routine, and the ethos of the era was characterised by Harry Flashman types, the great Regency school bully who in the new Victorian world could only find a place fighting overseas.
By 1842, Flashman laments that ‘respectability was the thing: breeches were out and trousers came in; bosoms were being covered and eyes modestly lowered; politics was becoming sober… the odour of sanctity was replacing the happy reek of brandy, the age of the dandy was giving way to that of the prig, the preacher to the bore’.
Those Regency men raised in the 20th century must feel the same way about this new age, even if it is a better world in most ways. The new Victorians may preach about different sins, but the sanctimony is the same.