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I went to the Trussell Trust food bank round the corner from theObserver’s offices just before Christmas. If I hadn’t been reading the papers, I would have assumed it represented everything Conservativesadmire. As at every other food bank, volunteers who are overwhelmingly churchgoers ran it and organised charitable donations from the public.

What could be closer to Edmund Burke’s vision of the best of England that David Cameron says inspired his “big society”? You will remember that in his philippic against the French revolution, Burke said his contemporaries should reject its dangerously grandiose ambitions , and learn that “to love the little platoons we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections”. Yet when confronted with displays of public affection – not in 1790 but in 2013 – the coalition turns its big guns on the little platoons.

It would have been easy for the government to say that it was concerned that so many had become so desperate. This was Britain, minsters might have argued, not some sun-beaten African kleptocracy. Regardless of politics, it was a matter of common decency and national pride that Britain should not be a land where hundreds of thousands cannot afford to eat. The coalition might not have meant every word or indeed any word. But it would have been in its self-interest to emit a few soothing expressions of concern, and offer a few tweaks to an inhumanely inefficient benefits system, if only to allay public concern about the rotten state of the nation.

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