Don’t get mad about the Mail’s use of the Philpotts to tarnish the poor – get even
The Daily Mail reminds me a little bit of climate change: you think you’ve got the measure of just how bad it is, but every time you look it’s taken another appalling leap forward. Yesterday, following the conviction of the Philpotts for the manslaughter of their six children, it called Mick Philpott the "vile product of welfare UK". The cynicism, the lack of respect for the dead, the dehumanising terminology (he "bred" the children, it says); the front page alone told us all we need to know.
But the paragraph that had me churning with impotent rage was this one: "Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: his story shows the pervasiveness of evil born of welfare dependency. The trial spoke volumes about the sheer nastiness of the individuals involved. But it also lifted the lid on the bleak and often grotesque world of the welfare benefit scroungers – of whom there are not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands in our country."
It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits. When any section of society is demonised on irrational grounds we have to take that seriously, so I will complain to the Press Complaints Commission, and I hope you will too – even though, as Twitter helpfully pointed out, it’s run by Paul Dacre, the editor in chief of the Daily Mail.
The Mail habitually gauges the amount of bigotry it can get away with, and plants its editorial view at the farthest edge. Usually it’s pretty acute, though I think it’s likely that it’s gone too far on this occasion. But it would never have used these deaths for this political purpose had they happened before 2010 (the deaths themselves could have happened at any time; keeping one’s partner perpetually pregnant is a very common feature of domestic abuse, as of course are threats and violence).
It is a marked feature of the last three years that people claiming benefits have been represented in a particular way – as worthless, immoral, grasping and, fundamentally, different to the rest of us. While political rhetoric endlessly labours the difference between "skivers" and "strivers", very little genuine attempt is made to distinguish between people who are on unemployment benefit and people who receive benefits because of low wages (which, incidentally, most of the Philpotts’ benefit income came under – both women worked, and got tax credits).
At the weekend the Baptists, Methodists, the United Reform church and the Church of Scotland came out against the six myths routinely spread, by politicians, about the poor: that they are lazy, addicted to drink or drugs, not really poor, cheat the system, have an easy life, and that they caused the deficit. Set down on paper, they are astonishing, laughable. And yet these ideas are pervasive, written across the landscape of this miserable Tory Narnia. The cost of welfare is called "unsustainable", borrowing a sense of fear and scarcity from an environmental debate with which it has precisely nothing in common to suggest breakneck spending of the nation’s resources, on these welfare claimants, as far back as the country can remember. Nobody is unemployed any more, they’re part of a "culture of worklessness".
We’re told there are 120,000 "troubled families", costing £9bn – the troubles relating to crime, drink, drugs and antisocial behaviour – when, on closer inspection, it turns out there are 120,000 poor families. Anybody who receives anything, whether a working family tax credit (the clue is in the word "working") or housing benefit, will at some point have been described, by Iain Duncan Smith or George Osborne, as the cause of the debt burden they inherited.
Indeed, the introduction of universal credit, a single household payment with the same name whether you’re working or not, will erode the very distinction that this scornful skiver/striver language relies on. Clearly, they hope that in the medium term, by the time universal credit is rolled out, all benefit claimants will be despised equally, the very fact of needing any support at all being proof that they’re not trying hard enough.
It is this constant misrepresentation that has emboldened the Mail to take it one step further into hate speech, but the Conservatives themselves would never have had the guts to start this if they didn’t think they had some support among public opinion. My colleague John Harris showed, irrefutably, that majority opinion is with cutting benefits.
In part, this is just what hardship does. Generosity drops away and distrust is amplified and embellished, to use as a fig leaf over a spirit of meanness. But the roots go back further than the financial crash, to the widening inequality that has had as its inevitable side-effect a growing and real suspicion between social groups, whose lives and circumstances bisected one another less and less.
So much current political rhetoric relies on accepting the idea that the poor differ in fundamental ways, that they care less for their children, that they are less honest, that they are more stupid. This thinking would have been impossible under Margaret Thatcher; whatever her rhetorical flourish, she simply didn’t have three decades to build on during which we’d all been moving farther apart, distrust growing like a fungus in the gaps between the deciles.
We won’t eradicate this vitriol against the poor with reason or facts or fury of our own; only greater equality can rebuild normal trust in one another. Or, in other words – don’t get mad, get even.