By Paul Goodman
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Not so long ago, people were both more free and more orderly. For example, there were no race relations laws: you could say what you liked about ethnic minorities (as they usually weren't called then). The English always drank: "He gives your Hollander a vomit ere
the next pottle can be filled". But – again by way of example – fewer illegal drugs were available, so the policing and health and social costs of substance abuse were far lower. And since there was no internet, it followed that there was no online porn. Although the churches were emptying, Christianity was woven deep into the nation's culture, like the threads on the Bayeaux Tapestry.
Today, people are less free but more disorderly, or at least more diverse. You must watch what you say about ethnic minorities or gay people. But illegal drugs, once consumed only by the elites, are available to the masses. And you can say pretty much what you like about Christians, or at least people with socially conservative views. (Though Nick Clegg thought it prudent to claim that he doesn't believe that those who oppose same-sex marriage are "bigots). Where once the presence of the Church of England floated like some universal fog, today there lumbers health and safety…or the European Union.
I assert the following. Younger people tend to like these changes. But older people do not. And David Cameron should be as delicate with their views as he is mindful of their wallets – when it comes, that is, to the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes and free TV licences.
Not that the Prime Minister is indelicate with them, at least most of the time. Indeed, he shares much of their outlook on porn, drugs and booze, as can be seen from this site's Reporting Special on those subjects today. Or, rather, he has conservative reflexes that George Osborne, say, doesn't share, and which may have something to do with his less urban upbringing. Let's go through those topics one at a time.
On porn, Mr Cameron's instinct will have been not to cross the papers that want stricter controls. But he has concluded that these simply wouldn't work. So there it is.
On drugs, the debate about legalisation is from one point of view irrelevant. Slowly and surely, though with wild inconsistency, de facto though not de jure decriminalisation is taking place. The Prime Minister knows this. He just doesn't want to frighten the horses.
On booze, Mr Cameron, who started off in the Commons with a financial interest in a nightclub chain, has got a bee in his bonnet about a minimum price per unit for alcohol.
Some of his Conservative Cabinet colleagues – Michael Gove, Eric Pickles, Andrew Lansley – disagree, but the Prime Minister is determined to press ahead. It is almost as though, charged from many sides of leading a Government whose mission is unclear, he is making a point. Look elsewhere for Big Visions and Great Themes, he seems to be saying. If you want to know what I'm all about, look at the smaller but important measures I'm determined to drive through.
Such as minimum alcohol pricing. Or such – to return to an important but much bigger change – as same-sex marriage. As I've said before, the Prime Minister is almost selfless in pushing a measure that will do his Tory successors some good but himself some harm.
It is true that the damage will largely be confined to activists, not voters. That's to say, polling suggests that the number of switchers on the issue will be marginal either way. But that's not quite the end of it: like the EU and immigration, I suspect that same-sex marriage is one of those issues that tends to stick in the minds of many older voters, in much the same way that pictures might stick in a collage on a teenager's wall. From their point of view, it is one more piece of evidence of that culture change from freedom and order – or conformity – to control and disorder that they shy against, like a horse rearing at an unexpected obstacle in its path.
Matthew Parris sends a balloon floating into the air in today's Times (£). He suggests that rebel Conservative MPs with atavistic views have the whip withdrawn. Mr Cameron is more cautious. He thinks that older voters won't lump lost money, but will put up with culture change. So it is that same-sex marriage waxes and the Winter Fuel Allowance refuses to wane. I'm not so sure that he is right. In 1997, old Labour voters had nowhere else to go. In 2105, old Conservative ones have UKIP – or, more likely, absention. Frantz Fanon urged the revenge of the Wretched of the Earth. The Elderly of the Earth may come for David Cameron.