You get your free lunch, and then you pay for it

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KENNETH Clarke saved the day once again yesterday with his retrieval of the Tory record on taxes. The point was not that you paid more taxes under the Tories. Of course you paid more taxes under the Tories. But the point was that you would have been paying even more taxes under Labour.

Brilliant, isn't it? The idea had somehow got about that the Tories had been claiming they were the party of low taxation. But low taxation had never been on offer. The Tories were the party of less high taxation, and that is what we happily have.

Until Mr Clarke rode to the rescue, I thought a certain realism had begun to creep into political discussions recently. The assessment, for instance, of the real human and financial cost of Westminster's housing policy seem to be shown in a cold, post-ideological light.

With the story of the Pergau dam, a cold light was shed on the Government's pretensions over prudent spending. Meanwhile, the much-admired-at-the-time Clarke budget was beginning to look rather less attractive. As Mr Clarke said, with a rueful grin, he had been rumbled. The tax cat was out of the bag.

It had been a bad time for the something-for-nothing fantasy, that most powerful and universal fantasy which underpins so much of our culture. The impression given was that you could have good government while paying less for it. You could sell off public housing and just do without it. You could even sell it off cheap, or pay people to go away and live somewhere cheap like Portugal. It sounded great. It proved unstoppable. It tapped into the fantasy.

I am an expert on the something-for-nothing fantasy, an expert through introspection. I do not actually go out into the fields with a metal detector (I still have some shame). But then, I do not have to.

I do not go to car boot sales, but I know a man who does. He asked my opinion of a silver jug he had just acquired, and from the way he held the jug I could tell it was an object invested with much fantasy. It had been a bargain. It had cost nothing.

Does it have a hallmark, I asked. No, said the man proudly, it was Indian silver.

I thought of sitting him down and acquainting him with the merits of the hallmarking system. After all, if he had wanted a Georgian- style silver jug, he could have bought one for a little more than he had paid and it would have been silver.

But I could see the point was nothing to do with the possession of a silver jug. The point was to have made a conquest, to have been smart, a trickster, a cheater of fortune.

There was a great guidebook, for something-for- nothing fantasists, in the days of the old coinage, called 'Check your change', based on the fact that some recent coins were rare and therefore had a price. So the fantasy was that if you only went through your pockets every evening, you might find some astonishing rarity.

My guess is that 'Check your change' made its modest profits out of people who indulged the fantasy for about a week, but found the checking rather more boring than the fantasy.

It is when we are in the grip of the something-for- nothing fantasy that we can be at our most vulnerable financially. A common method of marketing fakes plays on this weakness. It is called under-cataloguing. A picture is produced which suggests a famous artist, but the signature is missing or indistinct. It is put into auction, without any claim being made on its behalf, either by the faker or by the auctioneer. The estimate given may be very low.

The faker is making a kind of bet. If no one, or only one person, is interested, he loses cost of materials and, say, one day's labour. But if two people suspect it might be valuable and are themselves prepared to bet on it, then he may do very well indeed. Nor has any law been broken when they choose to bid a few hundred or a couple of thousand. The something- for-nothing fantasist buyer has only himself to blame. It is a form of perfect crime.

You would expect that a large London auction house would do its utmost to ensure no masterpiece slips unrecognised through its fingers. No doubt this is so. But there is still a value, when someone picks up a masterpiece for nothing, for the auction house itself. It perpetuates the idea that the punter could strike lucky.

Where something-for- nothing can be seen at its most spectacular is in cases where order has suddenly broken down and looting begins. It is a puzzling thing to watch, not because it is puzzling that the poor should want food, but because looters seem prepared to take anything at whatever risk. When they are shopping, they will shop around. When they loot, their judgement goes out of the window.

I do not understand why a soldier in the thick of battle should be moved to commit rape, and I do not see that it is self-evident that looting should be the consequence of, say, an earthquake. But these natural consequences seem to be evidence of something very deep.

The Tories came to power, all those years ago, with a freshly honed wit'n'wisdom that includes the adage: there is no such thing as a free lunch. They prided themselves on good housekeeping, on not throwing good money after bad, and other folkloric nostrums. They preened themselves on their achievements in reducing tax.

But I am sorry to say they had a hidden agenda. Behind 'no such thing as a free lunch' lay 'bargain houses going dirt cheap for votes'. Behind 'good housekeeping' lay 'flogging off the fixtures and fittings'. Behind 'not throwing good money after bad' lay 'greasing the palm of the Third World so companies that have greased our palm can get in on fat contracts which the Third World does not need'.

A man goes to a car boot sale, and his eyes widen as he sees a nice big Georgian-style 'Indian silver' jug going dirt cheap. And he hugs himself with glee at the thought that he will be cheating the vendor. But if he had gone to a normal high street silversmith, he would not have been mugged.

The same man goes to a polling-booth where one party has made the mistake of being honest (that is the Labour Party), another is wildly pretending to be honest ('One penny on income tax for education - that's how honest we are') and the third is offering . . . a Georgian-style jug in 'Indian silver', dirt cheap.

Something for nothing] A snip at the price] Silly fool, as long as he dreams of diddling the Government, the Government will diddle him. As long as he dreams of something for nothing, he will get nothing - and he will pay for it, too.