Those whom tax has united, let no man put asunder

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The Independent Online
IN CONSECUTIVE posts last month I received three letters from the Inland Revenue. One threatened me with court action to seize my goods if I didn't pay pounds 92 within seven days, another admitted I didn't owe anything, and the third contained a cheque for pounds 80. Given this fairly typical example of inefficiency, I'm astounded to discover that a group of Tory ladies wants to involve the Inland Revenue not just in people's financial affairs but in their sex lives.

The Conservative women's national committee met on Thursday to discuss a proposal that couples who stay married for 10 years should be paid a "fidelity bonus" in the form of a tax allowance. Reporting that a majority of party activists want the tax system to favour married couples, the Times added delicately: "Whether or not proof of fidelity would be required is not spelt out.''

One possibility is a "fidelity" box on tax returns which non-adulterous spouses could tick - or those husbands and wives who've synchronised their stories. But what if someone claims the allowance and then finds out his wife has been having an affair? Would he have to pay back tax? Would a demand come winging through the letterbox, baldly headed "revised assessment (evidence of adultery)"?

Disputes about angels dancing on pinheads are as nothing compared to the complications that could arise. Imagine the queries: "Since completing last year's tax return in which I claimed the fidelity bonus, my former best friend has revealed a one-night stand with my wife. She insists that as the sexual act was non-penetrative, due to his state of advanced inebriation, the tax allowance is not affected. Is this correct? Could you also send me information on the tax implications of divorce? Yours etc.''

ONE couple who would, I'm sure, be entitled to the allowance several times over is Neil and Glenys Kinnock, who once paraded their devotion by holding hands in a mawkish television election broadcast. This is one tradition New Labour seems happy to continue, with Cherie Blair gazing adoringly at her spouse as he performs remarkable feats like entering or leaving their house.

People have been getting cross with me lately for my tepid response to Tony Blair, the argument being that I have to support him because - as Baroness Thatcher said in another context - there is no alternative. Labour tried socialism at the last election, I was told recently by someone close to Blair, and look where it got us. New Labour wisdom, as I understand it, is that policies like returning the privatised utilities to public ownership, proportional representation and charging VAT on private school fees are either too expensive or an electoral disaster.

The best we can hope for, apparently, is a right-wing Labour government modelled on the lines of the administration run by Australia's Paul Keating. There is a fallacy here and it doesn't take much political acumen to identify it. Labour's mistakes during the 1992 general election were legion, from the triumphalism of the Sheffield rally to the sordid squabble over Jennifer's ear. Labour insiders still speak fondly of Neil Kinnock but I'm convinced his combination of intellectual arrogance and windy rhetoric did untold damage.

What's wrong is the proposition that there are only two possibilities for anyone to the left of the Social Democrats, Old Labour represented by Kinnock or New Labour and Blair. I'm far from certain New Labour is a socialist party at all; if we had PR, I suspect both main parties would split into smaller groups representing narrower but more clearly defined bands of political opinion. Coalition governments would follow but who can seriously argue that we'd be worse off than under 16 years of dogmatic one-party rule? In the meantime, with first-past-the-post, the chances of successfully launching a new party are so slim that Tony Blair and his advisers have little choice but to wear borrowed clothes, however badly fitting.

SOMETHING horrid happened to me last weekend, in the shape of an unwelcome intruder. There I was on Sunday morning, enjoying the papers over a cup of tea, when it leapt out at me: tall, dark, and about as subtle as a blow on the head. My first thought was that it had escaped from the custody of one of my colleagues, Wallace Arnold or Captain Moonlight, but I checked and both had their full complement. So for anyone who's been wondering, I'd like to put the record straight and point out that this column does not use exclamation marks. Just full stops and commas. Even when it's very excited.

STARING out on to my sodden back garden, I'm gripped with a longing to be in Florence. I love the light reflected on the wet cobbles on autumn evenings and the way the sky turns purple at dusk over the Arno. And there's a sculpture, Donatello's Maddalena penitente in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which never fails to take my breath away.

It's a wooden figure, barefoot and in rags, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. The first time I saw it, it struck me that Donatello had portrayed the effects of sin as a woman ravaged by disease. The thought came back to me this week when an Irish priest, Father Michael Kennedy from Dungarvan, announced that an HIV-positive young woman had deliberately infected five local men with the virus and put another 60 to 80 at risk.

The medical reasons for doubting the claim have already been pointed out but it's also too glib a moral tale. Disease terrifies because its vectors are invisible and its effects are delayed; the urge to blame it on a particular human being often produces scapegoats like Typhoid Mary. In this case, I suspect that centuries of doctrine linking women and sin may have predisposed Fr Kennedy to believe it far too readily.