Melanie McDonagh: The meanie justifies the 'envy'

The great thinkers would be unimpressed by Anthony Steen's claim that we are jealous of his large house

Share
Related Topics

There have, God knows, been some choice specimens of bluster, humbug and arrogance over the past fortnight in the reaction of MPs whose expenses have been published. But for an almost heroic inability to see what the fuss was about, one man stands out.

He is the Tory MP, Anthony Steen, who responded to constituents' criticisms about his own expenses (£87,729 over four years for a variety of services, including the care of 500 trees on his Devon estate) in an interview for Radio 4's The World at One, as follows: "I think I behaved, if I may say so, impeccably. I have done nothing criminal, that's the most awful thing.

"And do you know what it is about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral, but it's a merchant house of the 19th century... it's not particularly attractive but it's got room to plant a few trees....

"What right does the public have to interfere in my private life? None. Do you know what this reminds me of? An episode in Coronation Street."

Within hours, Mr Steen was hauled before David Cameron and forced to retract, but it was too late. "Jealousy" – a word he almost spat out – stuck in the public imagination as the Ancien Régime response to the rattle of the tumbrils.

Now obviously, Mr Steen got it wrong. What he should have said, if he hadn't been so cross, was "envy". Jealousy is either belligerent possessiveness about what belongs to you, or antagonism towards a rival for something, or someone, you want to belong to you. Envy is, at its simplest, coveting what other people have got and resenting them having it.

So if Mr Steen is right, we're back to the politics of envy, that staple of British political debate. His constituents begrudged him having the space to plant "a few trees". Beasts. (In Ireland, the same sentiment is usually known as "begrudgery".)

The "politics of envy" phrase is invariably trotted out whenever politics takes a class turn, which in Britain, is fairly often. The Commons debate on the right to roam was a case in point. Labour's Michael Meacher attacked the Tory opponents of the Bill as "rooted in the squirearchy of the 19th century". In response, Andrew Robathan, the Tory MP, declared that the Bill "resembles the politics of envy". The debate on hunting took the same turn.

In Scotland, the head of Fettes, Tony Blair's old school, responded to a bid by the Scottish Parliament to deprive public schools of charitable status by declaring "the politics of envy" was behind it.

On a different tack again, when Peter Hain attacked big banks' bonuses (when they were still handing them out), he declared that they "create a society where you start getting envy being promoted".

And interestingly, the argument was deployed within the Labour Party by Peter Mandelson when he was arguing against proposals to impose big tax rises for the rich (before the Government actually raised the top rate to 50 per cent). "I think the politics of resentment just leads to the conclusion that it is ok to drag people down." For resentment, read envy.

Plainly, envy is a sentiment you only ever attribute to someone else. He is envious; I am egalitarian. It has been a matter of interest to philosophers and theologians since Aristotle. Famously, it's one of the seven deadly sins, so called because they are not only serious in themselves, but give rise to other kinds of badness. For St Augustine, it was the "diabolical sin", the "occasion of hatred, detraction, calumny, joy occasioned by the misfortune of a neighbour". Mr Steen could hardly have put it better. St Thomas Aquinas summed it up succinctly. "Envy", he said flatly, "is sadness at another's good." Not very nice, then. In Dante, the envious went around purgatory with their eyelids sewn up with wire, because in life they had liked seeing others brought low.

Aristotle, who framed much of the later argument on the subject, thought that we feel envy not for those far above us but for our equals, because it's with them that we compare ourselves. (The modern philosopher, John Rawls, took the opposite view, saying that a more equal society would diminish envy.) But Aristotle would say Mr Steen's constituents might, in fact, be more likely to envy their next-door neighbour's nice garden than their MP's arboretum. Indeed, envy between equals is more interesting. "Their success is a reproach to us," says Aristotle, "... for it is clear that it is our fault we have missed the good thing in question." So if someone from the same background and school as ourselves does well, we're likely to feel far worse about it than if someone richer does, because we started out with the same chances. As the Gore Vidal gag has it: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

But that could be a good thing. Because the flip side, for Aristotle, of envy is emulation. And that's the spur we get from seeing other people succeed to succeed ourselves. "Emulation makes us take steps to secure the good things in question; envy makes us take steps to stop our neighbour having them." You can't help thinking that Mrs Thatcher would have approved that sentiment.

But perhaps Mr Steen was simply wrong in attributing envy, or jealousy, to his critics in the first place. His constituents may not have taken exception to his £87,729 worth of expenses in four years because they would have liked the opportunity to claim for it themselves. They may feel quite a different sort of passion, namely, anger.

Each deadly sin has a corresponding virtue. And Thomas Aquinas was in no doubt that anger could be a positive thing, in that it can actually give you greater zeal for justice. So if Mr Steen's critics are mad at him, it may be that they're entitled to be. It's from the righteous indignation of the people that MPs are hiding now.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing...

KS2 Teacher

£105 - £120 per day + Expenses: Randstad Education Maidstone: Randstad Educat...

German & French Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The EU must take more responsibility for the migrants risking their lives to reach Italy

Benjamin Ward
The view from Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh  

Scottish independence: Why I can't wait to leave London and live in a free, independent Scotland

Yannis Baboulias
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week