Now I'm not one to go climbing the Cenotaph; nor am I going to taunt police horses – I'm terrified of them; they're a lot bigger than me. But there are times when I'm sorely tempted to plant myself in the middle of Parliament Square, clap my hands over my ears and yell a protest for all I am worth in the direction of whichever minister might be in earshot. I especially wanted to do this when the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, decided to give everyone a telling-off about donating to charity and told us we all had to be more like Americans. He also told us we had to do more volunteering (because, though he didn't actually spell this out, if we didn't, the Big Society might look a bit on the small side).
One of the reasons for my fury, I'll admit, was pure resentment. Mr Hunt, like many of his colleagues, is a millionaire several times over. So why doesn't he just go out and endow something and let the rest of us take the hint, in such modest ways as we can manage. Why preach?
Another reason was his urging that people should, as a matter of course, leave 10 per cent of their estate to good causes. The principle is fine. But if he's serious about it, I dare him to get his pal George Osborne to enshrine this contribution in a new-style inheritance tax. It would go down a treat in the shires. Then again, 10 per cent of what is left when people have paid back their student loan, watched their pension consumed by stock market caprice, and paid their care-home fees, may not help their chosen charities a great deal.
But the main reason for my fury was his exhortation that we should be more like Americans. The point is that if ministers want us to behave like Americans, they will have to treat us like Americans. And that means structuring the economy in such a way that the gap between low and high pay is even wider than it is; they will practically have to guarantee that a senior professional salary will be in the £200,000-plus bracket, and provide many more tax incentives than exist at present.
Essentially, if they want the big money to go to good causes, they'll have to give the seriously rich the choice of contributing to the Revenue or to charity. And for the rest of us, none of this messing around with GiftAid concessions that the charity, but not the donor, can reclaim. And no need to request itsy-bitsy receipts to recover tax already paid. Just a simple quid pro quo.
If that's too easy, how about this? As charities have increasingly contracted their services to local authorities – yes, the last government was into the Big Society, too – it's become more and more difficult to distinguish between some charities and a freelance arm of local government. Not surprisingly, those same charities fear they will be the first to be cast off when council budgets are slashed. I suppose the simple solution is for those same charities to concentrate on soliciting small, private contributions once more and offer their services free. Hey presto, the Big Society!
Foreign wars come back to bite us at home
That a film doesn't attract particularly brilliant reviews doesn't mean it has nothing to say. In the low-budget British production In Our Name, Joanne Froggatt plays Suzy, a Gunner with officer ambitions who has just returned to her family from a tour of duty in Iraq. Back in a benighted district of a benighted town, she miserably fails to readjust to her roles as wife and mother, and denies – with dangerous consequences – suffering post-traumatic stress.
All sorts of questions remain hanging, such as how she and her husband juggle caring for their daughter, given that they are both at the beck and call of the Army. Or how she ever married such a perverted loser. Or whether it is really that easy for an off-duty squaddie to get hold of her weapon? None of that, however, means that the serious questions posed in the film are not worth asking.
For instance: how many present and former servicemen and women are suffering malign after-effects from combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan? What is the human and financial cost, back in Britain? How many actually receive the treatment they need? The film also broaches the delicate question of how these wars have, or could, affect relations between young service personnel and their British-Pakistani contemporaries. (The answer, by the way, is adversely.) Not a great film, to be sure, but one that warns of a lot of trouble stored up for this country's future.
I do hope that squirrel's for sale
Alas, there was no more postponing the evil day; Christmas shopping it had to be. In one store, amidst the crockery, my eye was caught by a squirrel, about a foot high, two-dimensional, absolutely unadorned. All right, so it had no obvious use, but it was neat, naturalistic and fun. There was an owl, too, and I searched it, in vain, for a label. But an assistant put me right in no uncertain terms. These were not for sale; they were part of the display. Trying to salvage some dignity, I asked whether other people had asked about them. Oh yes, I was told, "loads".
Which, you would think, might send a message. But why do stores so rarely regard their props as saleable? Many of their fixtures and fittings – shelving, lighting, even flooring come to mind – would transfer to a domestic setting at least as felicitously as some of the items they are selling for that very purpose. Why don't they credit their shop-fitters, and why don't they in turn test the home-furnishing market?
This wasn't the first time I had made such a mistake. A couple of years ago, I tried to buy, then to beg, one of those giant cardboard rabbits Sony was using in its advertising campaign. Nothing doing. But I bet I wasn't the only person who would have liked one. Why, when the campaign was over, didn't they sell them off in a good cause? The company could have earned not just my thanks, but that of the Culture Secretary, too.