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

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.

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