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.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt