“Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: His story shows the pervasiveness of evil born out of welfare dependency”. Thus, one of the headlines (of which more in due course) spawned by the Philpott affair, the narrative of which is all too simple. Philpott’s crime was committed on May 11, 2012, at 18 Victory Road, a residential street in Allenton, Derby.
Five children died in the fire he set; another later died in hospital. The children were asleep upstairs in the house when the fire began, with their parents downstairs.
Mick Philpott, their father, was reported to have made “valiant” attempts to save them. Post-mortem tests revealed the children died of smoke inhalation. The parents of the children, Mick and Mairead Philpott, were later arrested and charged with murder, along with their friend Paul Mosley.
Their charges were later downgraded to manslaughter. On Tuesday, all the defendants were found guilty. Such are the bare facts. The motive for the fire was one of sheer malice: Philpott wanted revenge on his mistress, who had been living with him and his wife, and who had moved out with her children by him, depriving Philpott of £1,000 a week in benefit money for their (ie his) upkeep: the fire was to be blamed on her, so presumably Philpott wanted her to go to prison for setting it.
What conclusions can we come to as to the moral causes of this horrible tragedy? Are they not simple enough? Philpott is an evil man, who has done many evil things in his life, the most horrific of which has been the latest. He chose to do them. He was not in any way forced by circumstances into them. If he had not perpetrated his latest vindictively motivated crime, six children who died horrific deaths would now be alive.
Nothing else but his own malignancy can be blamed for what he has done. So what on earth was the headline from the Daily Mail, with which I began, all about? “Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: His story shows the pervasiveness of evil born out of welfare dependency”? Born out of? Is this not this headline one of the grossest examples imaginable of the utter folly of moral relativism? Evil, born out of — born out of welfare dependency? Surely the article beneath it is not as crude as that (most newspapers don’t allow writers to compose their own headlines)?
Actually, the piece itself – by a certain AN Wilson – is every bit as crude as that. He begins with an attempt to cover himself on the moral front, before the inevitable appearance of the relativist’s watchword or mantra, “but”: “Of course,” he says, “this is a story of tragedy — six children have been killed in horrible circumstances. It is also a story of great human wickedness for, even if the plot had gone according to plan and the children had been rescued, Philpott and his wife were conspiring to make it look as if another person had attempted to murder them.”
“But”, he continues (here we go), “where did all this evil come from? Evil no doubt (my italics)” – “no doubt” is an expression which actually implies that there is considerable doubt about what follows – “Evil… comes from the heart of human beings and we are all capable, in one way or another, of wrongdoing.” Yeah, yeah. “And yet, and yet”, he continues, “… throughout this painful trial, as the evidence was so slowly and painstakingly heard, it was impossible not to think of it as a hateful parable of our times.
“Those six children, burnt to a cinder for nothing, were, in a way, the children of those benevolent human beings who, all those years ago, created our state benefits system.” They were also, we are to understand, their victims.
“What the Philpott trial showed”, he goes on to say, “was the pervasiveness of evil caused by benefit dependency” (my italics).
So, the deaths of these children weren’t really the fault of Philpott at all. He was a bad man, all right. But whywas he a bad man? He was made bad by the benefits system: that’s what Wilson seems to say, in effect: “Philpott did not suddenly decide, after a blameless life, to set fire to his house, with six children inside it, and blame it on his ex-mistress. He did so after years of cynically exploiting the system; years of having children so as to claim yet more benefit; years of rampant dishonesty; years of treating the women in his life as objects of pleasure and the resulting children as a means to an end of more money for beer and cannabis.”
And he treated the women in his life as objects of pleasure, and he cynically exploited the system, because it was there to exploit: it virtually made him exploit it. And without it, he would have been a perfectly decent human being.
“If Beveridge and Attlee’s wishes had been fulfilled”, says Wilson, “there would never have been a family like that of Michael Philpott. Philpott himself would have been decently employed and his children would all have received an excellent education from the state in selective, well-disciplined, well-funded local schools.”
“Do you think”, he concludes, “that Philpott would have done this crime if he had worked regularly for the past 20 years and provided for those six children out of his own pocket?
“It is a difficult matter to prove, but I know what I think.”
I know what I think, too: and not just about the wretched Philpott.