By Leah McLaren - Monday, April 8, 2013 - 0 Comments
Politicians capitalize on tragic case in debate about welfare culture and domestic violence
The gruesome U.K. trial of the Philpott family, which concluded in the Nottingham Crown court last week, was one of those spectacles that transfixed a nation, and not just for the reasons you might expect.
Mick and Mairead Philpott were convicted and sentenced to life and seventeen years in prison, respectively, for the manslaughter of their six children, Jayden, Jade, John, Jack, Jesse and Duwayne, whom they killed by setting fire to their three-bedroom council house in the East Midlands city of Derby, in May 2011. The children ranged in age from five to 13. At their funeral, six small white coffins were carried into the church as their parents wept in a show of bewilderment—a charade that continued during a televised press conference, in which the Philpotts beseeched the public to help find the arsonist responsible for the crime.
The real story, which unfolded in court, was that Mick Philpott, an unemployed father of 17 children—in the U.K., child benefits are not capped, and the more children you have, the more welfare you receive—had become enraged when his live-in mistress, Lisa Willis, and her five children (four of whom were his) had moved out of his house, thus reducing the family’s government income. He and Mairead, as well as a former boyfriend of Willis’s, set fire to the main floor of the house while the children slept upstairs. It was a bizarre attempt to frame Willis and “save” the children, whom Philpott planned to rescue via a ladder. But the revenge plot went horribly wrong. The fire, started with copious amounts of gasoline, quickly got out of control. The recording of Mairead’s terrorized call to emergency services as she grasped the disaster of her own making is one of the more sickening elements in a case that has sparked a national debate over the U.K.’s benefits culture and domestic violence.
At the eye of this terrible storm was Mick Philpott, a domineering sadist and egomaniac with a long history of violent crime and domestic abuse. He had previously gone to prison for a near-fatal double stabbing of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. One girlfriend he shot in the groin with a crossbow because he thought her skirt was too short. Another he savagely beat for bearing him two sons when he actually wanted a daughter. Despite his violent, parasitic lifestyle (both his wife and Willis deposited their child-benefit cheques straight into his account and neither woman was allowed a key to the front door), he courted media attention, appearing on daytime talk shows and news documentaries to defend his decision to subsist on welfare and keep fathering children by different women. The British press nicknamed him “shameless Mick,” “the Derby dodger” and “Britain’s super-scrounger,” earning him a dismal sort of fame, but one he seemed to revel in.
Equally creepy, but far less surprising, was the attempt by some British politicians to capitalize on the details of this tragic case. Last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, said of the Philpotts: “It’s right we ask questions as a government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidizing lifestyles like these. It does need to be handled.” And Prime Minister David Cameron backed him up by saying that living on benefits should not be “a lifestyle choice.”
Both comments miss the point, of course, since being on welfare was surely the most minor in Mick Philpott’s long and ghastly list of transgressions against society—and womankind, specifically. This is a man who took his wife swinging, then forced her to have an abortion when she got pregnant. A man who took a sledgehammer to his teenaged girlfriend’s kneecap. A statutory rapist and a serial abuser who, as the trial judge pointed out in her summation, treated the women in his life “as chattels, there to look after you and your children.”
But the case was irresistibly good timing for the Tories, who have just unveiled their latest round of cuts to social spending. Critics are calling it the end of the U.K. social safety net, while supporters see it as a firm but fair solution to a benefits system out of control. By the next election, benefits spending will be reduced by about $33 billion, in the face of zero economic growth and sharply falling wages. Britons are angry about public spending, and with good reason. Social security spending as a whole is on the rise, however, the majority of the increase is due to the rising cost of state pensions, which the Tories have ring-fenced. It is convenient for Cameron to lead voters to believe social spending is up because of violent, depraved “scroungers” like Mick Philpott. But it is also, for the most part, a lie.
Many of Philpott’s most violent crimes were committed when he was gainfully employed in the army, so his joblessness is not the point. And his bizarre and opportunistic setup is hardly indicative of a broader British trend of violent misogynists impregnating and enslaving multiple women for the government benefits. Philpott’s arrangement wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was a sickness. And one that the British taxpayers are, ironically, still subsidizing—in jail.
By Leah Mclaren - Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 12 Comments
As they watch the debt crisis unfold, hardline Euroskeptics in Britain have never seemed so smug
In his speech to a joint session of Parliament in Ottawa last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron lavished praise on our economic system. After commending Canada for getting “every major decision right” in the past few years of global market turmoil, he lauded the strength of both the Canadian banking system and our economic leaders, who, he said, “got to grips with its deficit” and were “running surpluses and paying down debt before the recession, fixing the roof while the sun was shining.”
Cameron’s admiration for Canada’s relatively peachy fiscal position stands in stark contrast to his dim view of his eurozone neighbours.
The British PM used his northern stopover to trumpet the message both he and his finance minister, George Osborne, have taken up even more loudly than usual as of late: Europe, and the U.S., must get their fiscal houses in order, or face disastrous consequences. “This is not a traditional, cyclical recession, it’s a debt crisis,” Cameron said of the world’s faltering economies. “When the fundamental problem is the level of debt and the fear of those levels, then the usual economic prescriptions cannot be applied.” It’s a statement that begs the obvious question: what now?
By Leah McLaren - Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 11:15 AM - 1 Comment
High prices mean that many younger Brits will flat-share well into their adult lives
After arriving in London in 1896, the German architect Hermann Muthesius observed in a letter home, “There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the house. No nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house.”
Judging by the number of home improvement programs clogging the TV dial in contemporary Britain (picture an endless parade of middle-aged couples expending their savings and sanity renovating medieval thatched cottages in Wiltshire), his words hold true today. From the enclosure riots of the 16th century to Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme, which in the 1980s and ’90s encouraged tenants of government-subsidized housing to buy their council homes at a discounted rate, the issue of property—who owns it, who doesn’t, and who gets to lord it over whom—has become a national obsession, and in times of economic uncertainty, a class-based sore point.
Today it’s both. As beleaguered Britain wrestles with a shortage of affordable housing (1.5 million are on social housing waiting lists in England), many young urbanites are losing hope they will ever achieve the middle-class dream of owning—in some cases even renting—their own private space. The rise of what the media here has now dubbed “Generation Rent” is highlighting a whole new class divide: the one that exists between the land-rich older generation and their priced-out offspring.
By Leah McLaren - Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 3:20 PM - 7 Comments
Public sex appears to be on the rise in England, and buttoned-down country folk want it to stop
Sir Beville Stanier, nephew of the Queen’s late crown equerry and owner of an 800-hectare estate in Oxfordshire, was not the first one to notice the public orgies taking place on his property. “My tenants stumbled on the scene after dark and called to let me know,” he explained in an interview. “I’ve been down there myself in the daytime and the ground is littered with used condoms and tissues. It really is quite unpleasant.”
The orgy in question was not a random occurrence, but part of an established British activity known as “dogging,” in which participants meet to have—and observe—sex in parked cars and wooded lots. The phenomenon is hardly new. The BBC reported instances of the dogging “sex craze” back in 2003, with the news that “the Internet and text messaging are fuelling a practice which involves unprotected sex with strangers in public parks.”
By Leah McLaren - Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 11:40 AM - 1 Comment
Brits are using credit like never before. Whatever happened to frugality?
Gayle MacKay knows what it’s like to live beyond her means. The 32-year-old public relations professional has spent most of the last decade scraping by on a salary of under $30,000 a year while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world: London, England. Like millions of other Britons, MacKay has lived either at home with her parents or in shared accommodation, and despite steady employment, found herself barely able to make ends meet. She’s recently relocated to Barcelona, where, she jokes, “it’s the done thing to be impoverished,” but in London the pressure to spend money she didn’t have was relentless. “Every month by the time payday rolled around I would literally be right down to my last penny—and when I say last penny I mean I was up to my big overdraft limit. It was scary.”
MacKay is part of a new generation of Britons who, despite the high cost of living and low wages, have eschewed frugality—once a time-honoured tradition in a nation that finally ended food rationing in 1954.
By Leah McLaren - Friday, November 12, 2010 at 3:00 PM - 1 Comment
David Cameron’s wife brings style and mystery to the PM’s residence
Samantha Cameron might just be the perfect political wife. Serene, stylish, shrewd and hard-working, during the Conservative campaign last spring she was unveiled as “the Tories’ secret weapon,” and has been described by party insiders as “Dave’s best look.” The fact that she was luminously pregnant at the time with the couple’s fourth child (a girl, Florence, born three weeks premature a few months after her husband David’s Tories took power) only added to her photo-op appeal.
But Samantha’s easy smiles and effortless style conceal hidden depths of character. Those who know her say she is unflappable, impeccably mannered and also genuinely warm—a woman of “famously even temperament,” according to a recent profile in the Sunday Times. It’s a quality that has held her in good stead in the last year and half, an exceedingly turbulent period that’s included the death of her oldest child, the birth of another, the death of her father-in-law and the not insignificant matter of her husband becoming Prime Minister. Oh yeah, she works for a living, too.
By Leah McLaren - Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
Saudi royalty meets the British justice system in a bloody case of murder at a five-star London hotel
Last week at the Old Bailey courthouse, a prince was jailed for life.
Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud, 34-year-old grandson to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in the world, was convicted of murdering his manservant in what Crown prosecutor Jonathan Laidlaw described as “a really terrible, a really brutal attack.” It took place last February, when Bandar Abdulaziz, 32, was found beaten and strangled to death in a room at the ﬁve-star Landmark hotel in the upscale central London district of Marylebone. At the time, Saud co-operated fully with police, appearing “shocked and upset” at the death of his companion who, testimony revealed, often slept on the floor at the foot of his bed like a faithful dog. But during the October trial, a different story emerged.
The prince was revealed as a decadent playboy involved in a sadistic sexual relationship with Abdulaziz, a poor orphan—one so psychologically oppressed he did not even put up a fight to save his own life. While a post-mortem revealed Abdulaziz died with chipped teeth, split lips, a fractured rib and severe injuries to his head and internal organs, the prince had not a mark on him. The victim also had strange bite marks on both cheeks, which the prosecution argued were proof (in addition to sexually explicit photos of Abdulaziz on the prince’s phone) that the abuse had “an obvious sexual connotation.”
By Leah McLaren - Monday, October 25, 2010 at 4:20 PM - 0 Comments
Some London politicians have the answer for dealing with a snowfall: give everyone a free shovel
That’s the message one local government is giving London residents worried about what is predicted to be an unusually snowy winter for the British capital.
Camden Council, which accounts for a large swath of north and central London including Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and Primrose Hill, has unveiled a plan to encourage residents to shovel their sidewalks by providing them with the tools to do so. More than 2,000 wooden-handled, plastic snow shovels have been purchased by the local authority to be handed out for free to residents, shopkeepers or community groups.
It’s a nice gesture, by Canadian standards anyway. And a helpful one for a nation that is better accustomed to umbrellas and wellingtons than to windshield scrapers and Sorels.
But here in Britain (where even the short-range weather forecast is notoriously unreliable), the program has sparked anger among some local residents. They think it’s the government’s job to deal with snow—a rare occurrence in the south of England, and one that invariably sets off a wave of public panic before temporarily grinding the country to a halt. (Last winter’s unusually cold and snowy winter resulted in the closure of schools, businesses and public transit and reportedly cost the country as a whole more than $100 million in road repairs.)