On English Culture

In his 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell – a great lover and proponent of England and English culture – wrote:

Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual…

One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world…

Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries.

On each point, much as it might pain some to admit it, Orwell was right, and his observations remain accurate in 2018.

The English do indeed stand apart from Europe, and we arguably do have a less ‘arty’ and ‘intellectual’ nature – something much bemoaned by those who idolise Europe and wish that we were more ‘European’.

We are certainly not a puritanical people. We love to gamble and the gambling industry is worth £30bn annually; despite the war on pubs, we continue to be a people who love to drink alcohol, often to excess; and our use of ‘bad language’ is one of our defining characteristics. As for religious belief, we have very little, and this has indeed been the case for centuries.

‘We drink, fight and shag too much… I do not think that we were always like that’, writes Rod Liddle in The Spectator, in a typical example of viewing the ways of modern England as somehow constituting a radical departure from its more innocent past. In fact, as the following brief histories illustrate, the English of today stand in continuity with the English of centuries past. We’ve always been a rough bunch…

The English love of gambling
The English drinking culture
The English love of swearing
The irreligiosity of the English

…and we like it that way.

Urban Music in Eighteenth Century London

Last year, attempts by the police to take down ‘drill’ music videos from the internet made the news. Drill music, a genre which originated in Chicago, features balaclava clad youths, in particular from London estates, rapping about gang violence and threatening rivals. At the request of the Metropolitan Police, YouTube deleted 30 videos (although they have since been re-hosted on a porn video website), and one drill group in London has been issued with a court order that bans them from making music without police permission.

While ‘drill’ might be a recent phenomenon, a look at 18th century London shows that controversy over obscene music and its links to criminality is actually nothing new.

In 1750, the Bishop of London blamed an earthquake on:

the infamous and obscene songs and ballads that are openly sung on our public streets, to the great uneasiness of all modest and virtuous persons who are passing by; to the great corruption and depravity of our servants and children and to the total discouragement of virtue among the common people in general.

In 1785, the Universal Daily Register condemned ‘the indecent songs and immoral ballads chanted in almost every street of this metropolis’ as ‘destructive to the growing youth of both sexes’ and ‘marked with sentiments diabolical and unnatural’.

One contemporary commentator bemoaned the fact that ‘obscene ballads and songs in praise of thieving are the only ones sung about the streets’. These songs – known as ‘flash ballads’, ‘cant songs’, ‘bawdy songs’, and ‘gutter songs’ – glorified criminality and lionised the likes of highwaymen, while also covering sexual topics using language that would still be seen as shocking today.

Cant songs ‘cursed the constable, mocked the thief-catcher, boasted of the deeds of highwaymen’, and ‘shared the joy of freed prisoners’. They made use of street slang of the time, such as ‘tale’ (sword), ‘brace of wedges’ (pistols), ‘ridges’ (guineas), and ‘Dancing Cock’ (a drunk). In addition to celebrating a criminal lifestyle, popular songs also praised drunkenness.

Bawdy songs and gutter ballads, meanwhile, were sexually explicit. The popular song ‘Morgan Rattler’, for example, included the following lyrics:

First he niggled her then he tiggled her
Then with his two balls he began for to batter her
At every thrust, I thought she’d have burst
With the terrible size of his Morgan Rattler

Female songs were as common as male. In one, a woman looked ‘for some lusty fellow / Who’s able to give me some reason to laugh’. Another had these lines:

Some say that a tailor my husband shall be
But a tailor good lord why he’s no man for me
For his nose and his arse too near they do meet
That I think that his heat can hardly be sweet

A pair of female singers in the 1780s would sing on the Strand:

For my smock’s above my knee, she did say, she did say
You may have a smack at me, bowl away, bowl away.

Another pair of female singers would conclude a song by bucking their pelvises and simulating orgasm, to the delight of gathered crowds.

Meanwhile, a male song featured the story of how a wife’s veracious sexual appetite had reduced a man to a skeleton. The song closed with these lines:

For which I’m sure she’ll go to Hell
For she makes me fuck her in churchtime

Numerous calls were made to outlaw these songs and for government regulation of singers. The ballads slowly died out in the 19th century, as patriotic songs glorifying England’s military might came to the fore. It is clear from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, though, that in the mid-19th century these ballads were still popular enough to warrant action by the authorities. Fines or imprisonment for up to fourteen days were the punishment for:

Every person who publicly offers for sale or distribution, or exhibits to public view any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sings any profane or obscene song or ballad, or uses any profane or obscene language.

Many have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles as a more innocent and wholesome time, and to view contemporary society as uniquely degenerate. The assumption is that England’s drinking culture is something relatively new (it’s not), that the widespread use of ‘bad language’ is a modern phenomenon (it’s not), that the proliferation of betting shops and online gambling is something without precedent (it’s not), that football hooliganism is a recent development (it’s not), and that our modern irreligiosity is a major departure from a pious past (it’s not). Likewise, while drill music may indeed be a problematic development, the air of London was filled with the sound of obscene and criminally-linked music three hundred years ago. There is nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to English culture.

The English Love of Gambling: A Brief History

Gambling has long been a part of English culture, both popular and upper class, as have been attempts to curb it:

Such attempts had been enshrined in legislation since 1397 when cards were outlawed on work days. A further statute of Henry VIII confined all gambling to Christmas when, assuming the lower orders would be celebrating anyway, its disruptive effects would be minimal.

In the modern period, numerous Acts of Parliament have been aimed at regulating and restricting gambling, illustrating the extent to which it is entrenched in English culture. The 1664 ‘Act against deceitfull disorderly and excessive Gameing’ states that ‘many Mischiefs arise from immoderate Use of Games’. It did not condemn ‘innocent and moderate’ gambling, but took aim at ‘the maintaining and encourageing of sundry idle loose and disorderly persons in their dishonest lewd and dissolute course of life’ and the ‘debauching of many of the younger sort’. At the time, as the Act shows, people were gambling using cards and dice and betting on table tennis, bowls, skittles, shovelboard, cockfighting, horse racing, and dog fights.

Further Acts aimed at restricting gambling include the Gaming Act 1710, the Gaming Act 1738, the Gaming Act 1845, the Metropolitan Streets Act 1867, and the Street Betting Act 1906.

In the 18th century, taxes were imposed on packs of cards and dice. An 18th century statute outlawed the games Ace of Hearts, Faro, Bassett, and Hazard, ‘except in Royal palaces’. By 1847, the number of betting houses in London was estimated to be between 100 and 150:

These were outlawed with the 1853 Betting Houses Act, moving gambling onto the streets. Further legislation led to a crackdown on street betting, and it was completely outlawed with the Street Betting Act of 1906.

As Mike Atherton notes: ‘Despite the prevailing attitudes, the desire among the working classes to gamble was too powerful, and the legislation designed to prevent them from doing so was simply ignored’. ‘Paradoxially’, writes Roger Munting, the Street Betting Act of 1906

may have brought children into closer contact with gambling as often they acted as runners for illegal bookmakers. Furthermore, greyhound racing in major towns from the 1920s was another medium exposing children to the world of popular betting.

Cheap gambling machines were used by children in the 1930s, despite being illegal, and games machines became even more popular in the post-war period. A 1990 national survey found that 44% of 15-19 year olds used slot machines. In South West England in 1993, 62% of children were found to regularly gamble on slot machines.

In terms of legal, adult gambling, 1961 was to bring major changes, with the legalisation of betting shops. Up to 10,000 opened within the first six months, and March 2018 data shows that there are still more than 8,000 operating today.

As the English television horse racing pundit John McCririck notes of the legalisation of betting shops:

Gambling was being dragged out of the Dark Ages, when the only legal bets were made on the racecourse, or the phone. Street betting had been rampant and everyone knew it. Bookies’ runners ferried bets between punters and bookmakers, collecting in pubs and clubs (commonly in the urinals), and on street corners.

Betting shops, then, were meeting an already existing demand, rather than creating a new market. As Stan Hey writes: ‘The prohibitionists and religious observants have lost the battle, for with the global reach of shops and betting websites, gambling in Britain is now a 24-hour activity, worth more than £30bn annually to the economy’. There is, of course, also the National Lottery, the first draw of which took place on November 19, 1994. This has been added to by the Health Lottery and the Postcode Lottery.

Despite the huge reach of gambling in modern England, it, of course, still has its detractors. Writing in The Independent, a favourite newspaper of the liberal middle classes, Terence Blacker fulminates against the National Lottery, which is, he argues, ‘a national disgrace’. ‘This institution seduces punters into a pernicious fantasy of overnight riches and contributes to our something-for-nothing culture’, rants Blacker.

You would think, from reading Blacker’s words, that gambling in England is a modern phenomenon. In reality, it has been a part of English culture for centuries, and you can bet it always will be.

The Myth of the Europhile Young

Consider the following narrative:

The Brexit result revealed a huge divide in Britain: the old and the uneducated voted to leave the EU and are a bunch of ignorant bigots stuck in the past, whereas the well-educated young (the 75%) voted to remain in the EU, and are forward-thinking, cosmopolitan, liberal internationalist Europhiles. They are the future.

Is this actually true?

Polling data in recent years have revealed that Britons feel less European than the population of any other EU country, with two-thirds of people in the UK saying they do not feel any sense of European identity. This 64% figure contrasts significantly with the French and the Germans, amongst whom only 36% and 25% respectively identify solely with their nationality. Despite this, 51% of those in Britain who do not identify as European were still, prior to the Brexit vote, in favour of remaining in the EU, illustrating that ‘clearly, for this group, support for the EU has little to do with how European or otherwise they feel’.

When it comes to younger voters, a similar pattern emerges. A 2017 survey, commissioned by the thinktank Demos and supported by the British Council, found that half of young adults in the UK do not feel European, despite 75% voting to remain in the EU. Those who identified as solely or predominantly European were very much in the minority. Similarly, a 2017 YouGov survey showed that only 29% of young people in Britain see themselves as both Brits and Europeans. As Emily Dinsmore notes, ‘clearly, youngsters are not convinced that EU membership connects us with our European neighbours, or makes us feel like internationalists’.

When the reasons for the young voting to remain in the EU are looked at, what emerges is voting rooted in self-interest based on the perceived benefits of EU membership, rather than widespread Europhile leanings. Avril Keating, Director of the Centre for Global Youth at the UCL Institute of Education notes that UCL research has revealed that ‘young people in Britain are less tolerant of immigration than you might expect’ and the idea that ‘young people’s attitudes towards Brexit were really driven by idealism and cosmpolitanism’ is not strongly founded, with many young people voting Remain ‘because they viewed remaining in the EU as the safest option, and the outcome that would have had the least negative impact on their lives’. Keating also notes that:

Few reported feeling less European since the referendum, in part because few felt European in the first place. Most were also just as attached to and proud of Britain as they had been before the referendum.

Research by the London School of Economics illustrates the primary concerns of young Remain voters:

There was widespread fear and frustration. Prime amongst youth anxieties were questions about losing EU benefits including educational programmes, opportunities and rights. A close second was the feeling that economic livelihoods would be even more endangered in a post-Brexit UK.

Economic concerns, then, rather than any inherent love for the EU, or even Europe itself, were key to the youth Remain vote. Indeed, interestingly, a 2015 YouGov survey revealed that ‘as a group, today’s university students are mainly interested in traditional left-wing issues – but on core economic matters they are actually to the right of the general public’. Students might talk a lot about ‘social justice’ issues, but they are very much motivated by self-interest, and this came out clearly in the significant vote to remain in the EU.

The idea of a young Europhile population in Britain today is a misrepresentation. Young Britons, in line with the population in general, are not particularly European in outlook. As Libby Cherry, herself devoted to ‘an ideal of a future European Britain’, acknowledges, ‘British youth are only reluctant Remainers’. Cherry writes:

Even the most committed Remainers often shy away from painting the EU postively, let alone upholding it as a perfect institution. Many people also seem to forget that many young people support Jeremy Corbyn because he holds similar views to them on the EU – vague, ambivalent, faintly Eurosceptic – rather than in spite of them. Prior to the referendum, if the EU had cropped up in conversation the tone probably would have been negative rather than positive.

The supposed huge social and generational divide in modern Britain, then, is not nearly as drastic as the 75% Remain vote might make it appear to be. Most young Britons are not Europhiles.

The Irreligiosity of the English: A Brief History

In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘ (1941), George Orwell wrote of the English that:

the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities.

Looking at the history of religion in England after the medieval period, this is a pretty accurate summary. This post will look at the state of church attendance and religious belief in England from the seventeenth century to the present day. The clearest conclusion that emerges is that irreligiosity has long been a defining characteristic of the English people.

Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:

Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend…

In 1657 compulsory church attendance was restored but its ineffectiveness was evident after 1660 with the existence of de facto sects in the towns. The Anglican or state church drew its congregation for the most part from the privileged 3 percent of the population or those with incomes of more than 100 pounds per year, such as peers, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen, greater and lesser office holders, merchants, traders and lawyers.

So, the church was largely the preserve of the upper class and new middle classes. The popular beliefs of the general population can be ascertained from books of the time intended to critique them. A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the ‘superstitious man’ in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that:

old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports:

He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach.

So, while the English were still attending church in large numbers, compared with today, the ‘common people’ were clearly putting their faith in things well outside its teachings.

The eighteenth century saw an overall decline in formal religious observance. As to what the general population actually believed, it seems likely that the English religious worldview of the majority was still based on folk religion and folk magic. Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1725) sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. Bourne states of ‘the ignorant Part of the World’ (the ‘common people’ of England), ‘as to the opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious’. Bourne contends that they follow ‘idle traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more dependance upon the lucky omens of the other than his providence, more dread of their unlucky ones, than his wrath and punishment’.

In his essay ‘Churchianity versus Christianity’ (1868), the English Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon distinguished between biblical Christianity based on salvation and ‘Churchianity’, in which simply attending church is what defines religiosity, and stated: ‘Whenever Churchianity has ruled, revelry and wantonness have been winked at, so long as saints’ days, sacraments, and priests have been regarded’. That this was the situation in rural parishes of the eighteenth century is suggested by accounts of the time. Henry Bourne describes the festivities associated with the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint as follows:

[T]he inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.

So, for many who did attend church, their real interests lay more in the revelry associated with religious festivals than in the teachings and rituals of the church, just as Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, and so on, are today more associated with eating and drinking than with religious devotion.

Scholarly editions of eighteenth-century visitation returns illustrate the decline in church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population.’

This widespread irreligiosity was to decrease slightly in the nineteenth century. ‘The Victorian age was self-consciously religious’, writes Richard Brown, and the ‘prosperity, political liberties and Empire’ of the time were seen to be ‘rooted in Christian and Protestant faith’.

The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:

It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.

The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’.

This was a time in which middle class values of ‘hard work’ and in particular social respectability were ascendant. The middle classes read etiquette manuals and placed great value on ‘doing the right thing’ and on conservative morality and public displays of virtue. They sought to distance themselves from the lower classes: some simply blamed the poor for their misfortune, while others set about spreading conservative values through attempts at outreach, in movements such as those opposed to drinking and gambling:

The temperance movement was led by middle-class social reformers and philanthropists who wanted to manage an unruly working class. They tried to convince working men to spend their wages on clothes, food, and middle-class comforts such as furniture and watches, rather than on beer or spirits…

The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

This was ultimately to end in failure.

There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

In the end, the middle class revival itself proved to be short-lived, and by 1900, churches ‘were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well’.

Beyond the cities, the beliefs of the rural working English had changed little from previous centuries. ‘White witches’ or ‘cunning folk’ held more sway with the people than the clergy and were consulted for all manner of problems. Writing of rural Devonians, Sarah Hewett stated that ‘in cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid’. Likewise, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore refers to the ‘Lancashire witches’ carrying out divination rituals. Spells, magical charms, incantations, potions, folk cures, and all manner of superstitions characterised rural English belief, rather than orthodox Christianity and the teachings of the church, although by the end of the century, these beliefs were also on the wane. Some of them still linger on today in the form of popular superstitions.

The continuing decline in formal religious observance throughout the twentieth century is well documented. Even in the conservative atmosphere of post-war Britain, where ‘the social role of the church was confirmatory rather than controversial’, ‘a majority in the nation remained largely indifferent to what was going on in the churches’.

The 1960s saw an attempt by the church to revive itself by adapting to the significant cultural shifts that were occurring. Liberal theology became the order of the day, affecting ‘intellectual, organizational, and liturgical’ areas. It was hoped that:

All might still be well if the churches could shake off their image of belonging essentially to the past; instead they must present themselves as modern, up to date, and, above all, relevant… The churches looked to the secular world for a lead and borrowed, in some cases rather uncritically, both its ideas and forms of expression.

This liberalisation and engagement with a new world did not win many converts, however. The liberal clique still has a significant hold over the Church of England and, as Philip North, a Church of England bishop, has argued:

The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering.

The church remains an elite institution, and thoroughly middle class in orientation. The Talking Jesus survey of 2015, for example, estimated that 81 per cent of practising Christians had a university degree. The authors of A Church For The Poor (2017), reports the Church Times, have found that the ‘truly working-class are woefully under-represented in British churches’ and ‘cite sermons that disparage Sun readers, and social-media postings by Christians who argued for an IQ test before people could vote in the EU referendum’. According to Philip North, ‘all too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism’.

The one apparent ‘growth area’ in the Church of England in recent years can be found in the evangelical movement centred on the Alpha course and urban churches such as the famous Holy Trinity Brompton: ‘the slickest, richest and fastest-growing division the church has ever seen’, according to The Spectator. The extent and nature of such growth, however, is in reality arguably still very limited:

Critics say attendance figures at new churches rarely represent genuine new growth, but are largely due to “sheep stealing” – poaching existing members of other congregations – and attracting students looking for a new place to worship after leaving their “home church”. They also claim that the congregations of church plants do not reflect the demographics of their inner-city locations, but are overwhelmingly white, middle-class young professionals.

In reality, as The Telegraph reported in 2016, ‘Britain has become a nation of Christmas-only churchgoers, according to new figures showing a boom in attendance at festive services while Sunday congregations slump to an all-time low’. Even then, we are only talking about around 9% of the population.

The actual beliefs of the unchurched English masses arguably hark back to the kind of popular folk religion that existed in pre-modern and pre-industrial society. Polling data reveal that ‘a third of Brits believe in ghosts, spirits or other types of paranormal activity’; ‘British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God’; and ‘more people may believe in life after death than God’. A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:

The same survey also found that self-identified Christians are more likely to believe in aliens than the devil, and more likely to believe in fate than in heaven or an eternal soul…

[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.

The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:

Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.

“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?'”

Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban…

The English have never been a particularly religious people; in fact, quite the opposite. The church may still provide the formal reference point for ‘English religion’, but hardly anyone goes there. We are more likely to place our faith in a pair of lucky socks (36%) than attend church (1.4%). Irreligiosity has long been a defining feature of the English and likely always will be.

The War On Pubs: A Brief History

The rise of the middle class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the birth of a new type of Englishman. Whereas previously, English society was largely made up of a wealthy aristocratic elite at the top, and the masses below them, there was now a new and growing class of people who fitted into neither of these categories and were working hard to establish a new social position and a new cultural identity. Middle class culture saw hard work as the highest ideal, with aspiration and respectability at its heart. The public sphere was a place of commerce and structured civility. Etiquette manuals did a roaring trade and doing and saying ‘the right thing‘ began to be associated with what it means to be English:

Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could choose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.

We still see this today. An article in Tatler claims we are ‘crippled by embarrassment’ and that embarrassment is ‘our national affliction’. In reality, it is only middle class people who feel this sense of embarrassment, an embarrassment rooted in the fear of making a social faux pas. It’s not a working class affliction – they are seen as ‘rude’; neither is it an upper class affliction – they are likewise seen as ‘rude’, although this tends to be tolerated more readily. The middle class concern with public image and public decency was rooted in their desire for social mobility and their need to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. Snobbery is in fact far more a middle class phenomenon than an upper class one. Snobbery arises where a person doesn’t feel secure in their social position: they need to reassure themselves that they are better than those people, especially when they have made a conscious effort to separate themselves from their more humble origins. Upper class people do not need to constantly concern themselves with the ‘correct’ behaviour because they are secure in their position in society. Likewise, working class people who do not aspire to become middle class also do not need to endlessly worry about social etiquette or how they might appear to others as they too have their ‘place’ in the social order.

In the middle class ideology, restraint and sobriety were virtues. Public behaviour should be ‘civilised’ and gentle. You wore the ‘right’ clothes, said the ‘right’ things, and adopted the ‘right’ public persona. What you most certainly did not want to do was to involve yourself in public spectacles of ‘bad behaviour”. As a result, the working class love of drinking in public settings was looked upon with disgust by the new middle class. In their minds, drinking was something you did in private, and if you ever did drink a few too many, that was something that only happened on special occasions:

The class dimension of drunkenness was produced by a fundamental distinction between public and private. Drunkenness was only visible when it took place in public; and only certain classes of people drank in pubs or went about drunk…

Since the middle class tended to drink privately, it developed the idea that drunkenness was visible only in social celebration – hence the poor seemed to be having too much fun. The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

To a people obsessed with work and the accumulation of wealth, and with social status, ‘proper’ behaviour, and ‘respectability’, the common man enjoying going out and drinking was something to be frowned upon:

In the eighteenth century, the English middle and upper classes religiously served and drank wine at their dinners, and the working class frequently consumed beer and cider. During the nineteenth century, however, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment which served no purpose, caused many problems, and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement.

The middle class assault on our national drink – beer – and our pub culture, began in this period. This alien new breed of Englishman, who strongly disliked the boozing, swearing, irreligiosity, and boorishness of traditional English culture (both upper and lower) sought to make society anew in its image. The 1860 Treaty of Commerce was part of this effort:

William Gladstone, the treaty’s chief architect, spoke openly of what he hoped would be a change in British drinking habits – away from an obsession with beer – so that wine would no longer be a “rich man’s luxury”.

At the same time he was sensitive to the fears of Victorian temperance campaigners that cheaper wine would encourage drunkenness. More wine drinking was meant to civilise British drinkers, claimed Gladstone. His measures were intended for the “promotion of temperance and sobriety as opposed to drunken and demoralised habits”. Other changes – forerunners of the modern ‘off licence’ system – allowed grocers and restaurateurs, rather than just pubs, to sell alcohol. They were intended to weaken the “unnatural divorce between eating and drinking”.

This promotion of wine as a ‘civilising’ force is still evident today, and is part of the middle class disparagement of English culture and the idolisation of Europe. ‘Brits who are care about things like culture, food and quality of life’ like to move to France, writes a Telegraph columnist, gushing about a wonderful land in which wine is ‘everywhere’, ‘the people are more stylish’, and there is ‘a regard for public intellectuals’. In a moment of honest reflection, one Europhile writer at the New Statesman admits: ‘There’s a particular kind of snobbery associated with a love of “old” European culture’. And no-one does snobbery better than the middle class.

Despite the attempt to push wine on a beer-drinking public, and to encourage home consumption through a prototypical off-license system, the love of pubs continued throughout the twentieth century. In recent decades, however, the ideals of Gladstone have been given new life.

Under ‘New Labour’, the middle-class-friendly reorganisation of a left-wing party into a liberal centrist movement, attempts were made once more to bring the centuries-old English drinking culture under control.

The Licensing Act 2003, which came into force in 2005, permitted licenses for ’24-hour drinking’ and was derided by critics as being wholly inappropriate for a nation of heavy drinkers. Labour MP Frank Dobson had it right when he argued:

I think the English – maybe the British – have been binge-drinkers since time immemorial. I don’t think we’re going to turn into Tuscany just because the hours have changed.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aim with the relaxed licensing laws was to create a ‘continental cafe culture’. ‘Bologna in Birmingham, Madrid in Manchester, why not?’ said a parliamentary committee report in 2003. Naturally, what actually happened was mass drunkenness on the streets at night. However, that is not the end of the story. Where the attempt to create a wine-drinking ‘continental’ environment on the streets of England failed, taxation has succeeded, this time under the Conservatives.

In 1860, Gladstone reduced the tax on wine and encouraged home consumption. We see a similar situation today. Buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket or off-license and you will see no tax difference based on the ABV of the wine. Buy beer and the tax goes up as the ABV increases. If you want to save money, then, you’re better off drinking wine. You’re also better off drinking at home:

One pound in every three spent at pubs goes to the Exchequer. Up to half of Britain’s brewers’ turnover is excise duty. In 2017, beer tax increased by 42%. The epidemic of pub closures is getting worse.

Ultimately, the middle class assault on English pub culture has been a success. Drinking is increasingly being forced into the private sphere and wine consumption is on the rise. In fact, it’s so much on the rise in middle class circles that ‘the middle class’ is reportedly ‘more likely to drink than manual workers’ and ‘harmful drinking’ is now said to be ‘a middle class phenomenon’. But it’s not beer and it’s not in public. And that’s what matters.

Gladstone would be proud.

Myths About Class and Obesity

Myth: Working class children are fed a poor diet, packed with sugar and fat, and are consequently obese and unhealthy. Middle class children eat more healthily.

There are obese children in all social classes, but who tops the list?

Middle-class children are more likely to be obese than those from poor families, researchers revealed today.

The findings undermine the long-held belief that childhood weight problems are most common among economically-deprived communities, scientists said.

But surely middle class parents read cookery books and make much healthier meals, instead of relying on ready meals and junk food?

Researchers from NHS Tees and Newcastle University decided to compare the nutritional content of the meals. In December 2010, they chose the top five recipe books, including 30-Minute Meals and Ministry of Food by Jamie Oliver, Baking Made Easy by Lorraine Pascale, Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen and River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

They compared the nutritional content of 100 recipes randomly selected from the books with 100 own-brand ready meals from Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s.

And the findings?

Meals based on television chef recipes were less healthy than ready meals. Significantly fewer were within the recommended ranges for fibre density and percentage of energy derived from carbohydrate and fat, and per portion they contained significantly more energy, protein, fat, and saturated fat and significantly less fibre.

TV chef Jamie Oliver is a campaigner who has long ‘striven to convince people of the health benefits of cooking their own food’ and has launched a crusade against sugar. Surely his recipes are healthy?

Taken from two of his books – Ministry of Food and 30 Minute Meals – they made up 47 of the 100 celebrity chef recipes.

They included one dish – Cauliflower Macaroni – that contains a whopping 1,100 calories per serving, about half an adult’s daily intake. It also contains 58g of fat, roughly three-quarters of a person’s daily need.

Oliver’s pancakes, touted by the Sunday Times as a ‘healthy breakfast’, contain more sugar than a bowl of Kellogg’s Frosties. His milkshakes contain more sugar than a can of Coke. A bread recipe calls for two tablespoons of sugar.

Oliver’s book Meals in Minutes was condemned by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine as ‘one of the worst cookbooks of 2011’. His meatball sandwich recipe contains ‘double the calories, cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat’ of a Big Mac.

A child could eat a diet of Frosties, Coke, a Big Mac, and a ready meal and potentially come away healthier than if they were fed a selection of Jamie Oliver’s recipes.

OK, let’s skip the pancakes and the Frosties, and make a healthy fruit and veg smoothie instead. Bad move:

Having that all-fruit-and-greens-and-maybe-some-nut-milk smoothie for breakfast is seriously sabotaging your health — and your goals.

Why? Because you are loading your system with simple sugars. And that’s it…

When your body digests these sugars, it results in a burst of energy that quickly depletes, and storing them results in (you guessed it) generating fat….

You’re going to feel hungry. You’re going to store excess sugars as fat. And you’re going to crave high-fat foods (which is really just your body telling you it wants long-sustaining energy) until you finally give in and eat a large meal. Or you binge on a bag of chips. Or you buy three cookies. Who knows?

How about adding some brown bread toast, then?

Many types of brown and wholemeal bread contain higher levels of sugar than white loaves, a Telegraph analysis shows.

A number of popular manufacturers are adding sugar to bread seen as a “healthier” option, while equivalent white loaves remain free of the substance.

Campaigners described the findings as “alarming”, suggesting that families who opted for wholemeal varieties for health reasons were being misled. One nutritionist said the added sugar partly undermined the benefits of eating wholemeal.

But surely brown bread is healthier?

Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science monitored the gut bacteria and levels of fat, cholesterol, glucose and essential minerals such as calcium and iron in 20 healthy people.

Half the participants were given a higher-than-average amount of fresh whole-wheat sourdough bread to consume for a week, and the others were given the same portion of processed, packaged white bread.

“The initial finding, and this was very much contrary to our expectation, was that there were no clinically significant differences between the effects of these two types of bread on any of the parameters that we measured,” said the study’s senior author Professor Eran Segal.

“We looked at a number of markers, and there was no measurable difference in the effect that this type of dietary intervention had.”

How about embracing ‘wellness’ and going gluten-free?

A gluten-free diet is essential for people who have coealic disease or perhaps an allergy or intolerance. However, the diet has also risen in popularity among people who needn’t follow it.

Now, a new study has suggested that a gluten free diet can actually lead to obesity as gluten-free products actually contain a significantly higher energy content including more fatty acids and lipids than their gluten counterparts.

No wonder middle class kids are topping the obesity charts…