Privatising police services - as proposed by the West Midlands and Surrey forces - may sound like a satirical fancy from one of those left-wing comedians such as Mark Steel. But I learned years ago that satirising neoliberalism is impossible. In the late 1980s, I wrote a column mocking the first Tory proposals to introduce a competitive market to state schools.
The police should be reformed on similar lines, I suggested. If burgled, mugged or assaulted, we should have a choice of police forces to contact. Those who arrived first would get the job of apprehending criminals and be paid accordingly, with a hefty bonus if they were successful. Forces that employed dilatory constables and dim-witted detectives would soon go out of business.
A few days later, somebody wrote in to say that a relative of Milton Friedman had proposed exactly such a system.
Beyond our Ken
Does anybody still pay personal income tax? Has everybody become a corporation? No wonder George Osborne claims that small businesses are opening all the time, taking up the slack from his public spending squeeze. Hardly a day goes by without some fresh revelation of prominent individuals, even Labour ex-ministers and full-time government employees, who have their earnings paid into a private company - of which they and their spouses are usually the sole directors - so that they are liable for corporation tax at 20 per cent instead of higher-rate income tax at 40 or 50 per cent. The latest to be exposed in this nice little earner is that great tribune of the people and champion of public spending, Ken Livingstone.
A few years ago, my tax accountant proposed that, for a modest increase in his fees, I should adopt a similar arrangement. I declined, partly,
I confess, because I didn't fully understand it and it sounded like too much trouble anyway. But I also thought, as an avowed socialist and former NS editor, that I would feel uncomfortable - not to say embarrassed, if it ever became public knowledge - with such blatant tax avoidance. Now I am rather like the man who buys an expensive new sofa only to discover that his neighbour bought it half-price at a shop down the road. I feel foolish and embarrassed because I have missed a bargain.
Universal child benefit is a troubling subject. On the one hand, it seems absurd that taxpayers, many of them struggling on low incomes, should subsidise the rich and their offspring. On the other, a universal benefit strengthens (or should strengthen) social solidarity and recognises that children's welfare is the community's responsibility, not just parents'. Besides, the middle classes may stop supporting the welfare state if they feel that there is nothing in it for them.
Indeed, I suspect that is precisely what Osborne hoped would happen when he proposed withdrawing child benefit from families in which anybody earns above the 40 per cent tax threshold of £42,745 annually.
Now, Osborne is under pressure to modify his proposal and at least to raise the threshold at which benefit is withdrawn. I have a better idea. Pay the money only to parents whose children attend state schools. This would reward those making a genuine contribution to social solidarity, raise maintained school standards and, above all, ensure that taxpayers aren't helping with the fees for Eton.
I am sure the policy could be framed in appropriately Conservative terms: the welfare state, Osborne could explain, will reward not just the deserving poor but also the deserving rich, who show a sense of responsibility to the wider community or, if he prefers, "the big society". If he wanted the policy to sound even more Tory, he could make the benefit conditional on a child's regular school attendance and good behaviour.
If the Chancellor adopts my suggestion, I promise to vote Tory in this May's local government elections. Just this once.
Lay lordy lay
Lord St John of Fawsley, the flamboyantly camp former Tory minister who has died at 82, used to tell a story of how he was appointed to office by Edward Heath. "The phone rang very early in the morning. I was entirely naked. And, do you know, when told it was my leader on the line, I stood to attention and stayed quite erect throughout our conversation."
Heath gave him a junior ministerial position at the department of education, which was then led by Margaret Thatcher. "I must attend upon my mistress," Norman St John-Stevas (as he then was) would say, as he hurried from one of his long and frequently indiscreet lunches with journalists.
Later, when he was shadow education secretary, I went for a talk in his private office at Westminster and, as I arrived, complained of a headache. "Would you like to lie down?" he asked, indicating, with an extravagant sweep of his arm and a mischievous glint in his eye, an ample couch. My headache disappeared.
Far away, so close
Just before this column went to press, I ventured to the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, north-west London, for the first night of The London Spring, written by my friend and NS contributor Francis Beckett. Set at an unspecified future date, the play has an American medic visiting a London so poor that even doctors and philosophy professors resort to begging, theft or prostitution.
The play invites us to see ourselves as others see us when we visit poor countries in Africa and the Middle East. Before you next travel to such a country, I urge you to see it. The way things are going under this government, the biblical injunction about doing unto others, and so forth, may strike you with urgent force.