Being a Good Citizen

Like much of Britain, I have been following the Philpott case off and on. Initially, I didn’t get much further than thinking of the terrible end of the six children who died and the scars the tragedy must have left on the parents and surviving children. Then the media began picking over the case, revealing increasingly tacky, not to say downright disgusting, aspects of the behaviour of the adults concerned, culminating in the suggestion that the fire had been deliberately planned and executed. Yesterday I read the careful summing-up of the judge as sentence was pronounced before turning to reactions online.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the case was not about manslaughter but benefits fraud. With the honourable exception of a few (e.g. Cranmer among bloggers, @Michael_Merrick among tweeters), the people involved were almost forgotten in the rush to condemn and vituperate. I have to say I found the anger and outrage misplaced. Yes, it is right to be shocked that such things should happen, but that does not make it right to wish all manner of violence on those responsible for it. Although it will seem naive to some, I pray for the conversion of heart of Mick Philpott and the others; I pray also for the Philpott children who, as Michael Meyrick perceptively remarked, must be left with the sense that it would be better if they had not been born. But in addition to praying, I am left wondering how we understand citizenship in Britain today.

One of the the disturbing aspects of public reaction to the Philpott case is, in fact, fairly general: the assumption that being a taxpayer confers some sort of moral superiority on someone. In fact, it is merely one of the obligations of citizenship and citizenship is not dependent on it. There have been times in my own life when I have paid tax (quite a lot of tax, as it happens) and times when I have paid none (because I had no taxable income), but I was the same person throughout, with the same obligations towards the State, just as the State had the same obligations towards me. One of the subtexts of public discussion of the Philpott case seemed to be that anyone who does not pay tax but receives benefits from the State is an inferior kind of citizen. Now, there may be grounds for thinking that Mick Philpott valued his children principally as a source of income, but it is a huge step from that to the generalisation that anyone in receipt of State benefits is somehow less of a citizen than the taxpayer.

That is an important question, because as we face yet more economic uncertainty, the number of people who are unable to find jobs will inevitably increase. Some of the discussion of the Coalition Government’s welfare payment changes has been, I think, simplistic; but what constitutes being a good citizen, the rights and duties that it confers, is closely bound up with how we perceive the value of the people who make up society. The phrase ‘hard-working family’, with its overtones of nineteenth-century industry, may make one smile; but hear it often enough (and our politicians do seem fond of it) and one will begin to think that only the ability to be productive assures value. As a Christian, I find that wanting. As a citizen, I find it disturbing. Maybe as we reflect on the wider implications of the Philpott case, we could consider how we value others and are ourselves valued. Being a good citizen implies more than being a taxpayer. At the risk of sounding ‘preachy’, I’d say it involved an element of being good, wouldn’t you?