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Sex, politics and the new blasphemy
December 2017 / January 2018

And yet their sacerdotal pretensions breed opposition. The new morality seems so humourless, so lacking in any sense of proportion. It intrudes on harmless pleasures and reclassifies them as mortal sins. No distinction is allowed between atrocious crimes such as rape and tasteless jokes of the kind told by Gove at the start of this piece.

This is not just an abstract point. It has political consequences. Glance for a moment across the Atlantic. The Americans have elected a President who has attracted an astonishing number of complaints of sexual harassment. His manners are those of a braggart and an oaf. But the more he shocks and pains respectable members of the American Establishment, the better pleased his followers are. He is their revenge on the pious, pompous, hypocritical Democrats and Republicans who look with disdain on ordinary folk.

“He makes a joke of everything.” So say members of the British Establishment about Boris Johnson. How solemn and self-regarding they sound as they say it. Like many moralists, they secretly enjoy being scandalised. They condemn him as unfit to be Foreign Secretary, and ignore the many occasions on which by an effort of will, he makes no jokes, for these periods of self-restraint do not conform to their ignoble idea of him. And then, you know, his private life is not irreproachable. My dear, how shocking! How in this day and age can one be a statesman unless one has an irreproachable private life?

Again, the wider public detects the bossiness, the control freakery, the conformist cant and holier-than-thou puritanism behind such attacks. It wonders if Johnson can be quite as bad as all that, or his critics quite as good. During the EU referendum campaign, people liked it that he rebuked Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, for coming over here and telling British voters to tolerate sacrifices of sovereignty which the American people would never dream of making. His opponents, who will never forgive him for his role in bringing about Brexit, pulled him up for calling Obama “part Kenyan”. But that in the end was a detail in the bigger story, which was that the President had no business coming over here and interfering in our referendum.

There is much to be said for purifying the language of public life, so no one ever utters a racial epithet, or says something which is at variance with received ideas about sexual matters. But if we concentrate too heavily on eradicating such lapses, we may also find that our politicians become entirely cut off from the wider public. When the language of politics, and the language of ordinary people, cease to bear some resemblance to each other, it becomes impossible for politicians to talk to the people, and a waste of time for the people to listen to politicians.

In these circumstances, a new tone is needed. That is what Jeremy Corbyn offered at the last election. I am inclined to regard Corbyn as a false prophet, but at least he did his time in the wilderness. For year after year he resisted the Blairite pieties which came to dominate the Labour Party, at the end of which he routed the three sub-Blairite candidates who supposed they could compete among themselves to decide who would carry forward their by now hollowed-out faith. Corbyn was the blasphemer, who would not accept the gospel according to Peter Mandelson.
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Lawrence James
December 21st, 2017
10:12 AM
We are well rid of the old blasphemy for law. It was always unfair since the victim [ s ] were never present in court for cross-examination.

F Hugh Eveleigh
December 7th, 2017
8:12 AM
What a well written and argued article. As one born in the late 1940s I have sufficient memory of what was allowed (or not) in earlier times as to be able to understand the transient nature of much of the current madness. We are all human beings but the 'sapiens' part of our Latinate descriptor is sometimes a little suspect because many of us have at some stage said or done something spontaneously which could 'offend' someone somewhere and which in retrospect we might have managed in a more nuanced manner. As most of us are not politicians, actors or widely known in any sense our actions are a part of the somewhat idiosyncratic cut and thrust of daily living and go unnoticed. Balance and 'common' sense are lost in the current flurries of outrage and offence. It will, like most trends, pass in due course but in the meanwhile many public lives are being ruined because of PC reactions to alleged misdemeanours of word and deed.

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