THERE can be little more cynical than setting fire to your home with your children inside in the hopes of being hailed a hero for your efforts to save them; unless it is sobbing at a press conference in the wake of their subsequent deaths, while milking the outpouring of sympathy towards you for financial gain.
But the politicians who looked at the photos of those children and saw, not a tragic waste of young lives, but an opportunity for political point-scoring surely run Mick Philpott (and his accomplices wife Mairead and friend Paul Mosley) a close second.
It takes a real lack of empathy to use the suffering of one family to sell welfare reforms that will lead to the suffering of others; and it takes a wilful suspension of logic to portray what happened in the house in Derby as an inevitable consequence of a life on benefits. As if Philpott, with his 17 children and his unorthodox domestic set-up is representative of anything other than nature’s capacity to produce the occasional aberration.
George Osborne and David Cameron know this. They know the number of people living it large on the public purse is negligible; even as they moot a cap on child benefit, they know that less than 6 per cent of the 7.9 million families who receive it have more than three kids. Yet in order to justify their policies, they are willing to portray all those who survive on “hand-outs” as Philpotts-in-the-making. These people may be living in fear of the benefits crackdown, they may be struggling to put food on the table, but according to the Tories they’re all taking taxpayers for a ride and just a petrol canister away from burning down their state-subsidised “palaces”.
Given the government has been waging a hate campaign against society’s most vulnerable ever since it came to power – ensuring the strivers versus skivers dichotomy became common currency – its willingness to bend the Philpott case to its own ends is unsurprising. But what about the willingness of many ordinary people to buy into the propaganda? Have they too surrendered their critical faculties in their desperate search for a scapegoat for the mess the country’s in? How else could they look at images of the very ordinary semi-detached house with the caravan on the drive and nod along to descriptions of Philpott as living a life of luxury? Or be taken in by Osborne’s claim that the case “raises questions about the effects of benefits on behaviour”, when even the most cursory examination of the facts reveals him as having as much in common with the comparatively industrious Fred West as with the mass ranks of the unemployed (although there’s no suggestion he ever abused his children).
The skewing of this tragedy to fit a political agenda is not just obscene, it’s dangerous because it distracts from other contributing factors. While everyone argues about the role of the welfare state, the issue of domestic violence is being largely overlooked. This despite the fact that Philpott’s history of abusing women has far more bearing on the events of 11 May 2012 than his reluctance to work for a living. Like many violent men, he wanted to control the women in his life, so he sought out subservient teenagers with troubled pasts and kept them in a state of dependency. The production of children on an almost industrial scale may have been a money-making enterprise, but it was also a means of keeping his women where he wanted them; pregnant and powerless.
Sentencing him, the judge Mrs Justice Thirlwell said Philpott was also driven by his love of the limelight, and he certainly he seemed to feed on the notoriety provided by his appearance on The Jeremy Kyle Show. In his own home he was the “kingpin”, the hero of his own life story. Maybe he didn’t intend to kill his children, but he was happy to subject them to a terrifying experience just to feed his own ego. They were bit players in his drama and as such they were expendable.
When you put all these traits together – the manipulation, the hyper-sexuality, the lack of empathy, the narcissism, the recklessness – what you get is the commonly accepted definition of a psychopath. We already know psychopaths exist across the social spectrum; from Ted Bundy to Harold Shipman they exhibit the same amorality and lack of remorse. Occasionally, the acquisition of money will be a motivating factor – the Menendez brothers killed their wealthy parents then went on a spending spree – but it’s a symptom rather than the cause of their abnormality.
So if we can’t blame the welfare state, who can we blame? Some have suggested social services for not intervening earlier, but I’m not convinced. The children showed no signs of serious neglect before the fire. Perhaps they should have paid more heed to Philpott’s previous convictions; perhaps they should have been less tolerant of his unorthodox lifestyle, but it’s a huge leap to go from disapproving of other people’s sleeping arrangements to suspecting they will set fire to their home.
Others have hit out at The Jeremy Kyle Show for the way it fetishises dysfunctionality and encouraged Philpott’s self-aggrandisement. While it is as spurious to blame a TV programme for the arson attack as it is to blame benefits, I do think we might reflect on how egging people on to ever greater displays of brokenness affects both their outlook on life and ours. More than that, however, I think the Philpott case – and the reaction to it – should encourage us to question the drip, drip, drip of negative messages we are being force-fed about the unemployed. Mick Philpott – the judge said – is a man without any moral compass; but the leaders who sought to use his dead children to peddle their poison need to recalibrate theirs before we all lose our bearings. «