The Spider in the Urinal

Glen Newey · IDS resigns

In The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel describes his encounter with a large spider in a Princeton University urinal, from whose gutter it can't escape. Through the summer, the spider survives, even thrives, despite being urinated on 'more than a hundred times a day'. Finally Nagel takes pity and helps it climb out of the trough with a paper towel. Next day he finds the spider, exactly where he had left it, dead. The golden shower turns out to have been its lifeblood.

As is said of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, there's no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind. Whatever led Iain Duncan Smith to choke on the fare he's happily scarfed for six years, all the way up to the week of George Osborne's latest budget (by common consent a stinker to rival the vintage of 2012), a lucid grasp of political placement, say about the EU referendum, is unlikely to have figured in it. As spending on defence, pensions and foreign aid are ring-fenced, the chancellor's chopper hovers permanently over the welfare budget. No matter that the 'brilliant political strategist's' coup last Wednesday of robbing the disabled to bankroll tax cuts for the rich was already, by Thursday, heading the way of such previous Osborne masterstrokes as the pasty tax and cuts to in-work benefit, making Duncan Smith one of few ministers to quit over a policy he agreed with (one of Blair's better lines, during IDS's disastrous tenure as leader of the opposition, noted his tendency to dive into swimming pools that had just been emptied). The budget fiasco's one political use has been to poach airtime from sluggish growth and continuing failure in the flagship policy of debt reduction, routinely invoked as the reason for these depredations. IDS had been piqued into the bargain by Osborne's well-publicised view that – heart of oak and all – he may be a bit dim. Indignation must have welled up in his taut breast. He wasn't going to be Osbo's spider. He'd crawl out of his gutter even if it killed him.

There is a wider context to all this, and not just the one vexed by the Tories' Euro-neurosis. Pre-Thatcher Toryism coherently saw the business of government as being not to do much. It was more about being than doing – to fill the government benches with warm bodies who could be relied on not to do anything themselves, but to stop others from doing. Inactivity was a palpable token of success. This cult of studied effeteness gave way under Thatcher to the superficially similar stance of hacking back the state on principle, which has prompted the state to be ever lustier in its pursuit of a supposedly shrinking remit. The pragmatic contradiction this has thrown up, manifest under Cameron, is that the state has to be ever more vigorous in its efforts at swallowing its own tail – hence the aggressive policing of benefit 'scroungers', the bloated tax code, the burgeoning of the security and surveillance state, and so on, including the panopticist vision of IDS's universal credit. Hence, also, the government's trademark tone of insufferable bossiness, on everything from the civic duty of self-immolation to the god of work, to bans on legal highs.

It's here that Britain's 'European' question – as fully the object of constructive fantasy and infantile projection as was the 'Irish question' for Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and Salisbury – comes in. The wrestle is less with Brussels than with the government's Stockholm syndrome towards 'the state' that constrains and often controls it. At present the main outlet for anti-statism is hostility to Brussels, the 21st-century version of the old 'Norman yoke' myth. Success in cutting the UK adrift would expose Conservatives' love/hate affair with the British state, something that the post-Thatcher Tory Europhobia has served to mask. In its fantasy, the hydra once slain, England will resume its immemorial slumber, a reborn idyll of knitted bog-roll cosies and off-the-cuff xenophobia. IDS's career is valuable, if for nothing else, for exemplifying the confusions in a particularly febrile form. For now the great Euro-bladder may be hosing down on us in our gutter, but we're about to scuttle out.

Read more in the London Review of Books

 Bernard Williams reviews Thomas Nagel's 'View from Nowhere' · 7 August 1986

 Susan Watkins: The European Impasse · 29 August 2013

 Jenny Diski: Arachnophobia · 30 November 2006


  • 21 March 2016 at 6:02pm
    JWA says:
    Well, that's an impressively offensive analogy.

  • 21 March 2016 at 6:42pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    So, the quiet man has roared - sort of.

    I've always thought that there is a heroic aspect to the idea that the purpose of getting elected to public office was to try to reduce the government so far that, effectively, your kind will become quasi-redundant. A sort of lemming-heroism (ok, I know that the alleged behaviour of lemmings is a myth), but heroic, nonetheless. On the other hand, I don't believe a word of it: pols get elected for power and the idea that they will legislate themselves out of existence is foolish.

    But, as Glen says, in 'reducing' government, the government always seems to add a layer of extra government (at least for the poor), which is paradoxical, to say the least. One thing you have to give conservatives in America is that they are just gagging to scrap programs which use public money to help the poor, for purely ideological reasons: but they don't usually set up huge, expensive government bureaucracies to police the residual services left, which seems a peculiarly British thing to do, at least in recent times.

    But government policy these days has only a nodding relationship with logic or efficacy: it is more to do with playing to the populist gallery of 'hard-working taxpayers' at the expense of the 'scroungers'. This is not particularly a poke at the Tories: it has been a feature of argument on both sides of the house (at least until the recent Corbyn revolution).

    For the background to this, we need to go back to the time when both Clinton, in his 'New Democrat' guise and Blair as 'New Labour' essentially discarded a large part of their original constituency (the working classes, the poor), because they found the middle and upper classes much sexier.

  • 21 March 2016 at 8:48pm
    tony lynch says:
    To spiders?

  • 26 March 2016 at 4:22pm
    Graucho says:
    Well Cameron was warned "Beware the IDS of March"