Matthew Norman: What's wrong with a little indolence?

The world's fourth largest economy can well afford to look after the bone bleedin' idle to the tune of £74 a week

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There is, at time of writing, an even-money chance that you will not read these words. Evidently I have started, but lacking the resolve of an Icelandic-born quiz master there is no guarantee that I will finish.

There is, at time of writing, an even-money chance that you will not read these words. Evidently I have started, but lacking the resolve of an Icelandic-born quiz master there is no guarantee that I will finish.

If any of the recurrent symptoms with which I will briefly bore you - acute sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, middle ear infection (otitis media) and incipient bronchitis - take the slightest turn for the worse, I will switch off the computer, brave the "that bloody hypochondriac's at it again" tone at the office end of the phonecall, and take to my armchair with a book until it's time for The Weakest Link and a large Scotch.

Whether such an act would constitute malingering or an acknowledgement of incapacity is an issue on which the Prime Minister and I disagree. Mr Tony Blair was taking meetings the day after his heart procedure. In his position, I'd have taken a month off, and sat back to enjoy the vision of John Prescott pretending to run the country.

When it comes to deciding if an illness or injury is severe enough to bunk off work, my attitude is live and let live. If Mr Blair believes himself so indispensable that he cannot allow the country even a week's relief, fair enough. Being such a trooper may be vulgar and show-offy, but it's not inherently immoral. It is a lifestyle choice, and he is entitled to make it.

It is only when he refuses to reciprocate this laissez-faire courtesy that the blood starts to simmer. We, the people, graciously permit him to be a stoic. He, in return, accuses a couple of million of us of being workshy scroungers. Where's the justice in that?

In contemplating his announcement of the coming attack on the sickie culture - technically, the plan to deflect a million from incapacity benefit and towards the workplace - the ritual disclaimer is needed.

Like so many eye-catching initiatives with which the PM wishes to be personally associated, especially so close to an election, there is little chance of it ever coming about. This is another flier designed to appeal, in a quasi-subliminal way, to Tory voters thought to react like Pavlov's dogs to any mention of battering the welfare-reliant.

This is not to say that Mr Blair wouldn't love to do it, which is what is so depressing. Every bone in his socially authoritarian body must ache to blackmail people off the sick list by threatening to cut their lavish maximum incapacity benefit of £74 per week if they don't go looking for work.

Now this is probably just me being simplistic, but the timing strikes me as tactless. Saying you wish to deprive the poor of £11 a week seems a shade clumsy when the newspapers are full of undenied reports that your missus is about to pick up £100,000 for a few talks in Australia on behalf of a cancer charity.

If Cherie is struggling for a light-hearted intro, how about this? "Ladies and gentlemen, you're lucky it's me up here and not the old man. He'd be telling you to take out the i.v. drips, stop whingeing about the chemo, and get your lazy arses back to work. No but seriously ..."

In fairness, it isn't cancer sufferers any more than the out-and-out skivers (or conscientious objectors, as I prefer it) who'd be the casualties in Mr Blair's fantasy war, but the poor bloody infantry in the middle ... the ME sufferer who can't persuade a job centre official (the ultimate arbiter if the change ever comes) that she really is as weak as a kitten; the asthmatic whose condition would be aggravated by office air conditioning, the agoraphobic, the depressive, the sufferer from panic attacks, and so on.

How can a low-level civil servant decide if someone is in constant agony from a slipped disc or feigning it? When the inevitable league tables are imposed, would an official fretting about hitting Whitehall targets err on the side of generosity or harshness with a borderline case? For every real scrounger sent to work, how many troubled and painful lives will be made worse?

And yet look at me ... it must be the sinus-inspired fever, but I've walked into the trap of treating this proposal seriously, when the real point is neither political, medical nor social, but cultural. Woody Allen said that there's nothing better than slipping off to the cinema in the afternoon, and in principle he's right.

Myself, I'd tweak it and say there is nothing more delicious than that moment when you've put on the ultra-sick voice and excused yourself from work ... and ahead stretches a glorious day of home-delivered pizza, compellingly dreadful made-for-TV movies starring Jaclyn Smith, languid phone calls to neglected friends and maybe a little internet poker.

As recently as the 1970s, indolence was one of the great things about Britain. Watching a DVD of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this week, I've noticed that barely a scene passes without a spook recalling a two-month break in the south of France. Read any biography of Churchill, and almost as remarkable as the amount the man achieved was the length of his holidays. He probably wouldn't have made it to 70, let alone 90, without them.

Yet now, as ever more we turn away from civilised Europe, where every third day seems a bank holiday and whole countries shut for August, towards America where lunch is for wimps and long vacations for wusses, we have lost that badge of common decency. Those few who cleave to the old ways are ridiculed for it.

Take Keith Vaz. When dear old Vazzy resigned as Europe minister on health grounds, while plagued by vastly embarrassing financial allegations, people scoffed at his self-proclaimed heart condition. It's true that when some infantile hack (me, in fact) rang his office to arrange a game of squash, his assistant asked for a choice of potential dates. But we know the cardiac problem must have been genuine because no less stringent a medical examiner than the PM publicly acknowledged it.

Thankfully, Mr Vaz's ticker hasn't stopped him serving as an MP - but if it had, he'd be on incapacity benefit now, fearing the misplaced derision of his neighbours. And even if he was faking it (which he most certainly was not) shouldn't a country as mature and wealthy as ours give him the benefit of the doubt and pay up anyway without making him feel like a criminal?

There are myriad Keith Vazes out there, whose hearts, livers, kidneys or spines - and yes, for once, let's hear it for the humble sinus, too - give them a bit of jip, but not so much that they wouldn't be fit for some mind-numbing robotic work in a factory or on the Labour back benches; and who prefer eking out their miserly benefit to boring themselves into a coma for three or four times the money.

For a measly few billion, the world's fourth largest economy can well afford to look after the chronically but mildly unwell, the weak and feeble, the wretched and morose, and even the bone bleedin' idle, to the tune of £74 a week.

We can't all be super troopers like a warlord prime minister who really ought to know by now that an army always carries its wounded ... albeit the wounds aren't always visible to the naked eye, or even the MRI scanner.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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