Monthly Archives: April 2013

Me and Mrs T

Liverpool docks regenerationA former dock worker, 60-ish, ruddy-cheeked, and too big for the bar stool in this central Liverpool pub.  Not somebody I’d expect to find channelling my thoughts. But yesterday, we were in tune on Margaret Thatcher.

This past week and a half, I have avoided almost every word written about her. I have turned the pages of the newspapers unread, ignored the radio and television programmes, written nothing, and commented only once. (I was caught off guard when CBC Montreal called in the middle of lunch, broke the news of the former Prime Minister’s death, and put me straight on air.)

It’s not that I lack intellectual or even journalistic interest. It’s just that I simply don’t care. My fight with Mrs Thatcher was over long ago. It started in the sixth form of school, and raged through university when I marched against apartheid (she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization) and her government’s homophobic Section 28.  I yelled ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out!” when required, and stood quietly at the silent vigil that persuaded Oxford Dons to refuse her an honorary degree.  I did my bit as I saw it at the time. (My views have since benefitted from perspective: I remember what came before – and after.)

So forgive me, but my emotions are long since spent where the Iron Lady is concerned.

The former docker felt the same. “Don’t get me wrong, I hated her,” he said. “But that’s the past, what’s the point of going over it all now?” We agreed it was time to move on and talk about today. The bedroom tax (“not a tax, a benefit cut,” he corrected me). Unemployment – still higher than the national average in Liverpool despite regeneration that has physically transformed the city since I last visited nearly 30 years ago.

“Get rid of the current government,” my new friend said, adding with a disconcerting glare, “the whole lot of them.”

Not that he was a fan of Labour’s Ed Miliband. “Why isn’t he fighting?” he asked. “He should be shouting about what’s happening.” This ex-docker was getting dangerously deep inside my brain. I shook his hand and left.

Less than a mile away, in the vast neo-classical elegance of St George’s Hall, I found a tea dance in full flow. tea dance in St George's Hall Liverpool Couples waltzed and tangoed in a magnificent ballroom, with statues of great Victorians lining the walls. For decades this grand public building, once home to the courts, lay abandoned and decaying. A symbol of a city that, as Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor advised her,  should be left to “managed decline”.

St George’s was brought back to life with a huge injection of lottery funds. Much of the rest of the city centre got up off its knees with government money leading the way. In 2008, Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture was a stunning success. Millions of visitors came, though one of the tea-dancers complained to me that “down south”, Liverpool didn’t get the credit it deserved.

But it survived, and according to residents is a better place to live now than before 2008. Maybe that’s another reason my ex-docker could let Margaret Thatcher go in peace.

As for me, I made a peace of sorts a couple of years ago when walking on a Saturday afternoon through one of the Inns of Court in Central London. There wasn’t a soul around. A car pulled up and a driver helped a beautifully turned out but frail old lady to her feet. Having gained her balance she instinctively looked around and seeing her public (my husband and me) smiled warmly and waved. I admit I was impressed and didn’t hesitate for a second.

I waved and smiled equally warmly at Mrs T.

Focus on abuse of women not welfare

Sometimes hell – or in this case, England – does freeze over and one finds oneself agreeing with Ann Widdecombe.

The former Conservative MP once spent a week with the Philpott family in Derbyshire, making a TV documentary about trying to get feckless father, Mick, off state benefits and into work.

The no-nonsense Ms Widdecombe quickly got the sum of the man. In interviews following his conviction for the manslaughter of six of his children, she’s described his “pent up aggression.”

She was shocked by his habit of addressing his wife and mistress as “bitch,” and his descriptions of “servicing” the two women on alternate nights. She concluded that Mick Philpott, father of 17 children by at least five women, was “a very controlling, very manipulative, entirely egocentric man.”

That fits exactly with what the judge said when sentencing him to life in jail. She detailed a history that included a conviction (and remarkably short prison sentence) for repeatedly stabbing a former girlfriend who had the temerity to leave him.  There had been violence in every relationship, the Judge said. He had groomed teenagers as sexual partners, taken money from his wife, even denied her and his mistress keys to the house where they all lived.

That’s the back-story but the debate over the case has been manipulated to fit the current political agenda. Mick Philpott didn’t work, he hadn’t had a job in years. He claimed all the state support he could and pocketed the child benefit attached to his kids.

“Vile Product of Welfare UK” screamed the Daily Mail. The Sun hoped that “this is the last time the state unwittingly subsidises the manslaughter of children”.

The predictable outrage and counter-outrage about welfare budgets is too appalling to even begin to address.

So let’s turn our gaze from money to people: The women whose lives Philpott made hell – his wife (also jailed today for her part in the manslaughter of her own children), former mistress, former wife, numerous former girlfriends. They were amongst the estimated 1.2 million women who suffer domestic abuse in the UK each year.

It may be a well-known statistic but it bears repeating: On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner in the UK. One in four women will be a victim of abuse at some point in their life. In any one year, 750,000 children will witness abuse in their homes.

Domestic violence was recently described by a senior police officer as “the single greatest cause of harm in society”.

And yet all over the country, services that help these women are being cut. Refuges, rape crisis centres, domestic violence outreach programmes have all suffered as councils have had their budgets slashed.

Late last year, the charity Women’s Aid, reported an estimated 27,900 women turned away from the first place they approached for help because of funding cuts.

One of the refuges faced with closure in the coming months is in Derby. That’s the city where Mick Philpott lived and where his children died in a fire he master-minded in a fury at having lost control over one of the women in his life.

And those are just the cuts to existing services. Where are the desperately needed funds for training the police and specialist prosecutors in domestic violence cases? The money to provide more support for victims when they get up enough courage to testify against an abuser?

These aren’t luxuries, they can break the chain of violence. Can it be right that despite a history that included stabbing a former girlfriend almost to death and head-butting a colleague, Mick Philpott was given only a police caution when, two years ago, he slapped his wife and dragged her outside by her hair?

Mick Philpott certainly milked the benefits system, that is clear. But what he did and what he was doesn’t tell us anything at all about the Welfare State. He is not “typical” of anything other than a controlling, abusing, violent man. There are more out there. There will therefore be more victims and our outrage should be directed at the lack of help available for them