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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Hate Brexit Britain? 7 of the best places for political progressives to emigrate to

If you don't think you're going to get your country back, time to find another. 

Never mind the European Union, the UK is so over. Scotland's drifting off one way, Northern Ireland another and middle England is busy setting the clocks back to 1973. 

If this is what you're thinking as you absentmindedly down the last of your cheap, import-free red wine, then maybe it's time to move abroad. 

There are wonderful Himalayan mountain kingdoms like Bhutan, but unfortunately foreigners have to pay $250 a day. And there are great post-colonial states like India and South Africa, but there are also some post-colonial problems as well. So bearing things like needing a job in mind, it might be better to consider these options instead: 

1. Canada

If you’re sick of Little England, why not move to Canada? It's the world's second-biggest country with half the UK's population, and immigrants are welcomed as ‘new Canadians’. Oh, and a hot, feminist Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau's Cabinet has equal numbers of men and women, and includes a former Afghan refugee. He's also personally greeted Syrian refugees to the country. 

2. New Zealand 

With its practice of diverting asylum seekers to poor, inhospitable islands, Australia may be a Brexiteer's dream. But not far away is kindly New Zealand, with a moderate multi-party government and lots of Greens. It was also the first country to have an openly transexual mayor. 

Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Zealand since 2013, and sexual discrimination is illegal. But more importantly, you can live out your own Lord of the Rings movie again and again. As they say, one referendum to rule them all and in the darkness bind them...

3. Scandinavia

The Scandinavian countries regularly top the world’s quality of life indices. They’re also known for progressive policies, like equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. 

Norway ranks no. 2 of all the OECD countries for jobs and life satisfaction, Finland’s no.1 for education, Sweden stands out for health care and Denmark’s no. 1 for work-life balance. And the crime dramas are great.

Until 24 June, as an EU citizen, you could have moved there at the drop of a hat. Now you'll need to keep an eye on the negotiations. 

4. Scotland

Scottish voters bucked the trend and voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Not only is the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament a woman, but 35% of MSPs are women, compared to 29% of MPs.

If you're attached to this rainy isle but you don't want to give up the European dream, catch a train north. Just be prepared to stomach yet another referendum before you claw back that EU passport. 

5. Germany

The real giant of Europe, Germany is home to avant-garde artists, refugee activists and also has a lot of jobs (time to get that GCSE German textbook out again). And its leader is the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel. 

Greeks may hate her, but Merkel has undoubtedly been a crusader for moderate politics in the face of populist right movements. 

6. Ireland

It's English speaking, has a history of revolutionary politics and there's always a Ryanair flight. Progressives though may want to think twice before boarding though. Despite legalising same-sex marriage, Catholic Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws of the western world. 

A happier solution may be to find out if you have any Irish grandparents (you might be surprised) and apply for an Irish passport. At least then you have an escape route.

7. Vermont, USA

Let's be clear, anywhere that is considering a President Trump is not a progressive country. But under the Obama administration, it has made great strides in healthcare, gay marriage and more. If you felt the Bern, why not head off to Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont?

And thanks to the US political system, you can still legally smoke cannabis (for medicinal reasons, of course) in states like Colorado.