Saturday, 16 June 2012

Soul of a prig

Whig prigs - Horace Walpole to Nick Clegg

The most frustrating and damaging people in public life are the prigs. Political life is simply crawling with them and their impervious, stupid, self-approving paternalistic attitude towards ordinary people.

a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others: "she was religious but not a prig"


mid 16th century: of unknown origin. The earliest sense was 'tinker' or 'petty thief', whence 'disliked person', especially 'someone who is affectedly and self-consciously precise' (late 17th century)

Suits the political class rather well doesn't it?

So prigs have been with us for centuries in one way or another, but in the modern world we tend to gloss over just how powerful and pervasive they are in setting the agenda and moulding the narrative. Prigs never go away, they just evolve by teaching their kids to be prigs too.

Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase conspicuous consumption to define a link between waste and social status. For Veblen, status is largely built on conspicuous waste which may range from clothing fashions to big houses to pointless, but rewarding activities.

To me, this is where prigs step in.

It is okay for smart people with a the right type of conscience to live in nice houses, have second homes and jet across the world in order to attend a conference on wittering about a rain-forest. Yes that’s okay, because it’s serious you see. Prigs are serious.

But it certainly isn’t okay for ordinary folk to go jetting off for a holiday even if they can afford it. Oh no – that won’t do at all. Not serious. Wrong motive. Wrong class of people entirely. Those people probably drink Coke, watch football and take their kids to McDonald's. No, no, no, it just won’t do.

There is joined at the hip bond between environmental activism and mainstream politics. The bond is a priggish determination to limit the aspirations of ordinary folk - down to what prigs deem appropriate. That's a word prigs like by the way - appropriate.

Environmental activists and mainstream political activists have the same social and political attitude – the ineradicable attitude of the prig.

We ordinary folk are supposed to know our place, but here’s the giveaway – we are supposed to know our place without being told. It is a characteristic of prigs that they show but dare not tell. This is also why mainstream politics is much the same, whether nominally on the left or right. Both are the politics of the prig – and it isn’t a new phenomenon.

Environmental politics provides a convenient rationale for controlling and subduing aspirations in the name of being conspicuously green. It really doesn’t matter whether climate science is sound or not. What matters is that it chimes with a priggish distaste for the ambitions, tastes and preferences of ordinary folk. It’s essentially a class thing.

This priggishness is real, pervasive and powerfully effective. It always was. Covert, puritanical sneering in a modern guise. A genuinely priggish distaste for ordinary people is what unites modern political parties and activist groups on almost all issues.

It is why democracy has been dumped and will remain dumped, because we haven’t in their eyes, measured up to our responsibilities. Essentially that means our responsibility to know our place.


Woodsy42 said...

Spot on and nicely described!

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose someone has to run the show and to do our squabbling for us. Whoever you dress up in a good suit, pay £100K/year to, surround with yes-persons and a driver is bound to think they are important and become a prig. But what a tiresome job and whoever does it - doomed to fail. Still the pension is OK and the holidays are good.

What gets my goat is they are all such a lot of bloody amateurs tinkering and dabbling away. Why the hell after 200 years do we not know how to teach kids to read and 'rithmatik! Why the hell is there a shortage of housing, why the hell do we not declare limits on the health service - this much and no more.

One thing the French do right IMHO is the system of enarchs - professional who run the show leaving the politicians to do what they do well - sex and parties.

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - thanks, much appreciated.

Roger - "One thing the French do right IMHO is the system of enarchs - professional who run the show leaving the politicians to do what they do well - sex and parties."

I get that impression too. Whether or not it's a sound impression, I don't know.

Sam Vega said...

Yes, I hadn't thought of it in this way before, but you are right. Prigs are of course all around us, and presumably the really efficient and extreme ones find outlets for their inner demons in politics. They can't go into business as easily, because you have to at least pretend to value the customer's preferences.

I find the best approach to dealing with coarse and stupid people is to avoid them. The prigs have to get stuck in, though, don't they. They need to reform things.

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes the prigs don't like loose ends which is probably how they see coarse and stupid people. I think they are seen as a threat too - as are smokers.