In The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel describes his encounter with a large spider in a Princeton University urinal, from whose gutter it can't escape. Through the summer, the spider survives, even thrives, despite being urinated on 'more than a hundred times a day'. Finally Nagel takes pity and helps it climb out of the trough with a paper towel. Next day he finds the spider, exactly where he had left it, dead. The golden shower turns out to have been its lifeblood.

As is said of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, there's no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind. Whatever led Iain Duncan Smith to choke on the fare he's happily scarfed for six years, all the way up to the week of George Osborne's latest budget (by common consent a stinker to rival the vintage of 2012), a lucid grasp of political placement, say about the EU referendum, is unlikely to have figured in it. As spending on defence, pensions and foreign aid are ring-fenced, the chancellor's chopper hovers permanently over the welfare budget. No matter that the 'brilliant political strategist's' coup last Wednesday of robbing the disabled to bankroll tax cuts for the rich was already, by Thursday, heading the way of such previous Osborne masterstrokes as the pasty tax and cuts to in-work benefit, making Duncan Smith one of few ministers to quit over a policy he agreed with (one of Blair's better lines, during IDS's disastrous tenure as leader of the opposition, noted his tendency to dive into swimming pools that had just been emptied). The budget fiasco's one political use has been to poach airtime from sluggish growth and continuing failure in the flagship policy of debt reduction, routinely invoked as the reason for these depredations. IDS had been piqued into the bargain by Osborne's well-publicised view that – heart of oak and all – he may be a bit dim. Indignation must have welled up in his taut breast. He wasn't going to be Osbo's spider. He'd crawl out of his gutter even if it killed him.

There is a wider context to all this, and not just the one vexed by the Tories' Euro-neurosis. Pre-Thatcher Toryism coherently saw the business of government as being not to do much. It was more about being than doing – to fill the government benches with warm bodies who could be relied on not to do anything themselves, but to stop others from doing. Inactivity was a palpable token of success. This cult of studied effeteness gave way under Thatcher to the superficially similar stance of hacking back the state on principle, which has prompted the state to be ever lustier in its pursuit of a supposedly shrinking remit. The pragmatic contradiction this has thrown up, manifest under Cameron, is that the state has to be ever more vigorous in its efforts at swallowing its own tail – hence the aggressive policing of benefit 'scroungers', the bloated tax code, the burgeoning of the security and surveillance state, and so on, including the panopticist vision of IDS's universal credit. Hence, also, the government's trademark tone of insufferable bossiness, on everything from the civic duty of self-immolation to the god of work, to bans on legal highs.

It's here that Britain's 'European' question – as fully the object of constructive fantasy and infantile projection as was the 'Irish question' for Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and Salisbury – comes in. The wrestle is less with Brussels than with the government's Stockholm syndrome towards 'the state' that constrains and often controls it. At present the main outlet for anti-statism is hostility to Brussels, the 21st-century version of the old 'Norman yoke' myth. Success in cutting the UK adrift would expose Conservatives' love/hate affair with the British state, something that the post-Thatcher Tory Europhobia has served to mask. In its fantasy, the hydra once slain, England will resume its immemorial slumber, a reborn idyll of knitted bog-roll cosies and off-the-cuff xenophobia. IDS's career is valuable, if for nothing else, for exemplifying the confusions in a particularly febrile form. For now the great Euro-bladder may be hosing down on us in our gutter, but we're about to scuttle out.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Bernard Williams reviews Thomas Nagel's 'View from Nowhere' · 7 August 1986

Susan Watkins: The European Impasse · 29 August 2013

Jenny Diski: Arachnophobia · 30 November 2006