With the approach of the weekend I fret about what topic I can try to interest the reader in next week. But it seems the answer is clear: the Philpott case. A bit like the immigration issue, if you mentioned it you were in immediate danger of being labelled a closet racist, but now we can have an open and honest discussion. So it was too with Welfare.
In that case you were a stony-hearted – boot on the neck – oppressor of the poor. In both cases the bleeding hearts hoped by such calumnies to shut down the discussion and for generations they succeeded. Now Philpott has breached the dyke in magnificent fashion and the second of these taboo subjects has fallen to the dictates of rational argument.
If Philpott has done nothing else positive in his whole miserable, outrageous life he has, at least, opened the floodgates for a full scale debate on the whole meaning of Welfare. Now, let us be clear from the beginning: all right minded people pity the poor and disadvantaged and are prepared to move heaven and earth to ease their plight. But just as vehemently we feel a mighty anger at those who pretend to be in that category.
Long ago (1988) the British Shoe Corporation closed on me after years of pursuit for the back rent and balance of a 14-year lease for a business whose premises they rented to me. I had sold it in Glasgow six years before. You see, in legal parlance, I was ‘The Leasee of Last Resort’. It is a practice now banned by Parliament. What had happened was that the man I had sold my health club to had got into business and matrimonial difficulties and had done a runner to Australia. Muggins, here, was left to pick up the pieces. The Shoe Corp was finally advised by its sharp lawyers in London that the best way to force my hand was to take out an order in bankruptcy. At that time I was coming to the end of my 21-year lease for my Plymouth city centre health club and was making preparations for a new line of business – the ski centre – and I knew that if they made me bankrupt that was never going to happen. I was forced, as a result, to liquidate all my assets and that included two houses.
As a now homeless person with three children I ended up in a housing association property, but I was enabled, with the help of investors, to continue the ski project and drive it forward to completion.
The reason I tell you all this is that I saw at close quarters the benefits system in action – or at least two significant parts of it. My neighbour on one side was on disability benefit. There was a brand new disability car on the driveway. You can imagine my shock when later I saw that same person’s photo in a local newspaper, having completed a half marathon. My neighbour on the other side used to get up at 5.30am for his six o’clock work start. He told me that out of about 60 housing association properties only three were paying the rent. He felt a deep rage at this. The rest were claiming either to be one-parent families, disabled or unemployed. There were a few pensioners. Daily we could see the so-called unemployed going off to their cash-in-hand jobs or the fellas of the so called one-parent families parking their cars down the road and sneaking in through the back door to spend the night. So let’s not pretend that there is not widespread abuse.
The burden, especially during the longest recession in 200 years, has become intolerable as well as unsupportable and its effects are deeply pernicious.
Next year is a special year for me: I will have been at work for 60 – yes, 60 – years. I did not celebrate my 70th birthday – particularly, as I felt that in today’s world, unless you are unlucky, 70 is no big deal. But the thought has recently occurred to me that next year is different: it represents my own little Diamond Jubilee. You see, I am old school; I am deeply proud of not being a burden to my country and blessed with health that allows me to continue contributing my penny’s worth to its well being. I get up in the morning and walk the mile to work and there I meet the public – to whom I must continue to be nice and disavow what some would say is a normal right to be a grumpy old man. I set to, repairing shoes, cutting keys, servicing watches, engraving trophies, making wooden house and other signs and framing pictures. None of these things could I do before the age of 55, so I think I may have disproved that old dictum that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
When I was about to leave school at 15, the idea of not working was not on the radar. There weren’t benefits as we know them today. My foster parents took the view they had done their bit and it was up to me to do mine. Three years after starting I got hauled off to the Army to do my bit there for two years as a National Serviceman and I managed to get shot at by the IRA. Quite sobering it was. But the point of all this is about being useful to society if you can. I was 21 when I heard President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural speech when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Did Philpott ever think such thoughts? I think not. Nor, unfortunately, do multitudes of others. That is the trouble. It was right that William Beveridge, in his famous report, sought to abolish the evils of want, hunger, idleness, ignorance and disease. It was wrong that noble concept was hijacked by scroungers and the workshy. We – all of us – are culpable for the stupidity we displayed when we allowed it to happen. Naively we believed in peoples’ essential goodness and probity. Yet it has turned otherwise honest folk, who saw their neighbours getting away with it, into dishonest scroungers themselves. Now, perhaps, the party is coming to an end and we can begin the long climb back to our core values. We may, in the process, start to balance the national books.
As for Philpott himself, he represents all that is despicable in our species. He was a bombastic, narcissistic bully with a deeply cruel streak who even imagined he was fast becoming a celebrity, perhaps eventually a national treasure. He thought he could lead the media by the ears believing it to be something else he could control. He was also very stupid. Did it never occur to him that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit? He may continue to try to play the big man as he has done all his life, particularly with women, but that won’t last five minutes under the rigours of the prison system. I shudder to think what might happen if his fellow inmates gain access to him. Prisoners are infamous for exacting their own kind of primitive justice, especially where crimes against children are concerned. A speedy visit to that same eternity to which his lunatic actions consigned his six innocent children might well end up being a much sought after escape.