The Philpott case shows us that the welfare state is our better self

We can't simply rely on the kindness of strangers. The welfare state is there to help the people we are too flaky or prudish to reach out to.

 

There are about 2,000 families in the UK with eight or more children. There are more than 20,000 primary schools in England alone. That makes the school my children attend a weird outlier, because at the time my son started there, there were two of these big families connected to the school.

I found this out in pretty embarrassing fashion, at a party I was invited to a few weeks into my residence in the city (it was one of those try-out social occasions, to see if and where I'd fit). The guests were all mothers, and the conversation rotated around the safe, stock maternal subjects: how was the birth, did you go back to work, are you having any more?

I am very happy with my two. I want no more and no fewer. We are perfectly proportioned. But, not wanting to accidentally slight the family size of anyone present, I decided to make a joke: maybe I'd have more, I laughed, just a couple; I mean, I don't want 12 or anything crazy. Everyone laughed – a warm laugh, but a laugh that indicated my joke hadn't quite landed where I expected. "Not like Mrs Parker, then," smiled my closest friend at the table.

Mrs Parker and Mr Parker, it turned out, did have 12 children. 12 beautifully turned out children, the eldest helping to raise the youngest and the youngest playing alongside their nieces and nephews. I see them in the mornings, always on time and always smiling, while I am cursing and late with just two to take care of. At the basest biological level, I confess that I cannot understand this family.

My children are loved and wanted, but I find pregnancy tedious and childbirth appalling, and the replacement of my babies with witty, warm and clever independent beings has been like the lifting of a suffocating curtain on my life. I mean, I like babies all right, but they're bloody demanding, and I do not have the wherewithal to supply those demands again. Yet there the Parkers are, not like me and doing marvellously.

"Oh, but Mrs Parker doesn't think everyone should have lots of children," laughed my friend, and the gathering inched together conspiratorially. "She says she doesn't know why the Clarks can't just stop." And then there was a moment of sad reflection for the ten Clark children, in which I was unable to partake because I had not yet encountered them.

Actually, I ended up being a neighbour of the Clarks. Their home was round the corner from mine. In fact you may have seen it, because they featured in a tabloid a few years ago. This was after they'd been moved out the house near me and into bigger accommodation in a nearby city. I think it was their former landlord who went to the press: he was unhappy about the state of the house, and understandably.

I mean, I'd love to take the side of the poor family against the private property owner, but it was squalid. I once saw a midwife knock on the door and smile as she was admitted, and two thoughts rushed on me: firstly, they're having another one; secondly, how can she smile going into that? The smell of too many humans and too many cats in too small a place drifted into the street. It made me feel dirty just to look at.

And the children, with their grey and dirty faces, their stained and washed-out school uniform. They were scratching all the time, from lice. (But how could you keep down an infestation in a house like that?) I would like to say I was kind to them, but I wasn't, or not nearly so kind as they needed. This is the truth about me: I didn't want to touch them, and I was scared to let them close to me or my children, because I knew that what they wanted was touch. Affection. Intimacy. Care.

I caught one of them anyway. By accident. Actually, it was worse than an accident: it was a horrible, ironical distortion of my intentions. I told him off, because he was throwing gravel. "Don't do that," I said, curtly – more curtly than I would have done to any other child, I think. (But what other child would have been throwing handfuls of gravel, uncurtailed by a parent?) I avoided the dad for a few days after in case he was angry with me for speaking sharply to his child, but I don't think he'd noticed.

That was enough: the boy was mine after that. On the way to school he attached himself to my tiny train of three (me, my son, my daughter in her buggy) – slipping away unmissed from his great mass of siblings. He would talk and I would respond, but beside me my son would be anxious: he wanted my attention, and here was this interloper. One day I heard the Clark boy tell my son: "I want to marry your mum." All this, remember, because I told him off for chucking stones.

I spoke to the dad sometimes. Not the mum, she never left the house – I only saw her on the doorstep, a woman of large and sloping volume in dirty, shapeless clothes. (I read in the paper that she had spinal problems and depression.) Every so often I would think to myself: "You must warn him that the press will come for them. They're a story waiting to happen, and no one has ever told them not to talk to reporters. You ought to say something."

I never did. Even that one small, impersonal favour I could have done, I failed to do. Because I didn't want to get close enough to talk. Because I didn't like them. Because they weren't clean. Because I didn't want them to be my problem, even though they were there on my doorstep and the neglect was so obvious. And then they were in the paper, lined up for the camera, expectantly.

I don't see them since they moved, of course, apart from one time when I bumped into the dad at the bus stop. I asked how he was doing and he said, well. He said, I'm training to be an accountant. I thought, you can't be an accountant, you can't even count your children.

But I think about them this week. That family was not the Philpotts, size aside: what their children suffered was neglect, not abuse. All the same, when the Mail and the Chancellor turn on the Philpotts and say, we gave them too much, I know that's not true. People say, he wouldn't have had those kids if benefits hadn't paid for them, as if parents who set fire to their children care whether they can feed them or not. We didn't give those children too much: we gave them too little. 

I don't feel happy moralising about dead children, but in this case, it's mostly because the moral is a rebuke to my own failings. I should have given more. I may not have been near enough to fail in person, but I know I would have done: they would have disgusted me, and I would have pushed them away, like I did the Clarks.

The fact that their parents were shitty doesn't make these children less our problem: it means they should have been in our care, in all our care, government and society acting together to discharge our communal duty to the unhappiest of all. That's what the welfare state is there to do, so no child has to rely on the flaky charity of neighbours like me. The welfare state is our better self, and if we turn against it because of the Philpott case, we let one man's murderous cruelty infect all of us.

Two young boys climb on a fence in a street in the Govan neighborhood of Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.