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.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times