Friday, April 12, 2013

Grating Britons

I don’t normally pay much attention to UK politics, principally because I don’t live there any more and there’s scandal aplenty here in France to activate whatever sense of outrage I have left. However, sometimes something so appalling occurs that it forces me to notice a reality which might in other circumstances pass me by. Such has been the case in Britain in recent days. A man called Mick Philpott, unemployed father of 17 children, has been jailed for life for burning six of his children to death in their own home. It appears that, while possibly intending to save them once the fire was started, Philpott lit it because he wished, apparently, to persuade the local authorities of his need for more commodious living accommodation to maintain his prodigious and promiscuous lifestyle. In particular, he appeared to wish to continue to produce the children which, thanks to the state of welfare and state benefits in the UK, he saw as cash cows – each additional child netting over $80 a month additional income. By taking his obligation to provide off his shoulders, disincentivising him from working and encouraging him financially to have as many children as possible, the welfare state – while hardly encouraging him to kill his children – most certainly did encourage him to live a life of indigence, irresponsibility and moral squalor. The very possession of a welfare system, almost by definition, however, makes it virtually impossible to draw moral limits around it even when as now it is at the point of almost unsustainable overreach. Debate has become rancorous, nasty and ill-tempered and the more liberal academics or right wing politicians with little experience of the harsher realities of poverty attempt clumsy commentary on social engineering, the worse it gets. America is on the cusp of the same learning curve and they would do well to examine the example set by their European counterparts. Fortunately, there aren’t too many like Mick Philpott who shamelessly exploit systems designed to cushion the poor and vulnerable and I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to him had he conducted himself this way under a Thatcher Government. Yet, here we are, twenty-five years on in the hands of a clone, a post-Thatcher lookalike in several disturbingly familiar ways, where these same poor are being squeezed and punished for the fact that they have been unable to find suitable work, and the same old problems of twenty five years ago are resurfacing.
The death of the iconic Baroness Thatcher at the Ritz Hotel has been met with a vast and almost certainly disproportionate amount of press coverage, street parties celebrating her death – in my view, unnecessarily tastelessly -  with people singing ‘Dead, dead the witch is dead’, from the Wizard of Oz, through to rather more restrained political commentary, much of which offers parallels between her uncompromising grocery and housekeeping fiscal policy and the no-nonsense, squeeze-the-poor-but-keep-the bankers’-bonuses approach in today’s Westminster. Some people are saying there's not much to choose between them.
In the 1980’s, satire was richer than now. The Spitting Image puppets introduced a whole generation to a comedic look at Westminster, and no bad thing it was. I revisited a few of the better episodes and realized that I knew by name all the members of the Cabinet, their portfolios, their alleged strengths and weaknesses. As political commentary, it was unsurpassed. Here’s a clip. For those less familiar with the late 20th century, Nigella Lawson's father is the fat bloke with black hair with a pencil in his mouth.
As an afterthought, the Net is alive with those who propose behaving badly at her funeral - the very worst and most tasteless kind of protest best left to the likes of Westboro Baptist. Much as one might have disagreed with the policies she enacted - ironically the aspirant middle classes benefited most at the expense of the poor many of whose livelihoods were systematically dismantled - wearing smiley faces and turning their backs as the coffin passes is simply in the worst possible taste. Britons allow it because it's a free country and one can pretty much say whatever one bloody pleases, but rights and responsibility are equal partners. Adolescent jeering mostly from those who were in nappies or earlier during her time at No 10 is disgraceful and really rather sad. Finally, after the tragedy at the Boston Marathon yesterday, everyone will be scurrying around feverishly to ramp up security. Would I go if I were near London? No, I wouldn't. Not because I'm afraid that some manic jihadist wants to kill me, but because the old lady, iron or not, should be allowed to retire, hors de combat, with neither fanfare nor tears. 

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