Yesterday evening, as the first edition of the Daily Mail and its headline “Vile product of welfare UK” over an image of Mick Philpott and his deceased children began to circulate, Twitter exploded.
“The utter shameless, grotesque, vile mentality of a 'newspaper' that uses the killing of 6 kids for political purposes and to inflame hatred”, raged the Independent’s Owen Jones. “Utterly disgusted at Daily Mail's front page tomorrow. This paper is the 'vile product'”, said Labour MP Pamela Nash. Demands for boycotts, referrals to the PCC and even a reconvening of the Leveson inquiry followed.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Mail headline was grotesque. I just think it was wrong. I’m not even going to try to get into the sordid mind of a man who ends up setting fire to his own house and killing his own children. But from most reports of the case, it seems his actions were motivated primarily by a twisted desire to frame his live in mistress and win sole custody of his children. The possibility of moving to a larger house was possibly a factor, but a secondary one.
In truth, it’s impossible to rationalise the logic of someone who pours petrol over their home, consigns six children to death, and then according to evidence presented in court “engaged in "horseplay" when he went to view his children's bodies”. But one thing is certain, the man responsible for this act of barbarism is Mick Philpott, not William Beveridge.
Nor does the responsibility lie with Paul Dacre. The outrage from Owen Jones and other welfare campaigners over appropriation of the death of the innocents for “political purposes” would possibly carry greater weight if they weren’t so quick to reach for the bloodied shroud themselves. In August last year Owen wrote a piece for the Independent in which he quoted an activist from Disabled People Against The Cuts, Linda Burnip: "Disabled people are being driven to 'suicide and death', she says. The stories will be placed in a coffin and delivered to Atos's headquarters."
“Do Cuts Kill?” asked the Guardian’s Patrick Butler in 2011, citing the case of Mark Mullins and his partner Helen who died in what the police were at the time calling “unexplained circumstances”. Despite that, Butler himself had no qualms at laying the blame at the door of “a glacial welfare system which both baffled and terrified them, and may ultimately have crushed them”. “Enough is enough. Disabled people are driven to suicide because of the Government's welfare reform” wrote Nicky Clark in the Independent, last October, “People are either contemplating, or actually committing suicide, because their Government, our Government, are pushing through with policies which defy all understanding”.
Watching the “debate” over welfare playing out over the last few days has reminded me of where we were with the debate on immigration a decade ago. On the one hand we had the hysteria, hyperbole and scare stories about Britain being “swamped”. On the other we had the equally hysterical accusations of “racism” levelled at anyone who dared suggest immigration was now presenting problems that needed to be addressed.
Two things are very clear. Headlines like the Mail’s, and lazy characterisations of those on welfare as “scroungers” “chavs” or the “shameless generation” add nothing to our understanding of this complex issue. But nor does the similarly frenzied, emotive and immature language being deployed by welfare's self-styled defenders.
Take this extract from Polly Toynbee’s recent book Dogma and Disarray – Cameron at Half Time: “This week's edition of the FT's How to Spend It, suggests some Christmas foibles – £625 gloves, £705 Black Amber perfume, a £10,000 Boodles bangle. This is the world of Smythson of Bond Street, headed by Cameron's wife, where his echelons of opinion formers and policymakers may imagine they can glide on by, never looking down.”
This is what passes for a fact based defence of welfare is it? Stereotyping David Cameron – and for some reason his wife – as extras from My Fair Lady?
Everyone talks about the “facts” of welfare. But in reality people on both sides of the debate are terrified of confronting them.
The real problems with welfare date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we experienced the explosive decompression of Britain’s heavy manufacturing base. Since then we have tried to sustain communities, and entire regions, on four increasingly fragile pillars – an expanded service sector, an expanded state, cheap personal debt, and welfare.
One by one, those pillars are coming down. How they come down, and when they come down, we can debate. But they are coming down regardless.
Those who oppose welfare have a duty to explain what we put in their place. Having consigned entire generations to the scrap-heap, we cannot simply bulldoze the scrap-heap into the sea.
Similarly, those who support it need to understand the welfare system that has existed since the war is finished. Dead. Kaput. Fighting to save it is like fighting to save a sandcastle from the incoming tide.
So by all means, let's point at the scroungers and the toffs. Let’s all wave our bloodied shirts with pride. But be under no illusion, when the great pillar of welfare finally comes thundering to the ground, every single one of us is going to be buried beneath it.
Dan Hodges is a 'Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest.' He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns. He writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation. He is on Twitter at @dpjhodges.