After the Philpott trial: Six white coffins and a national debate

Politicians capitalize on tragic case in debate about welfare culture and domestic violence

Mick Philpott, right, and wife, Mairead. (Rui Vieira, AP photo)

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.