Rees Mogg on Grenfell: Callous indifference to suffering
Jacob Rees Mogg has been let loose on our airwaves for the first time in the General Election campaign. His first outing was to give an interview on LBC in which he was asked about the Grenfell fire. The results were exactly as you would expect.
Talking about how the dozens of human beings who, terrified and desperate, followed instructions to ‘stay put’ while the fire ripped through their building, Mogg seemed to suggest that they ‘lacked common sense’ for not disregarding the advice and fleeing.
The MP has of course since issued a non-apology for his comments, saying they had been misunderstood. Instead, what he had meant to say was that, ‘with hindsight,’ those people should have fled instead of waiting to be rescued. Well, the obvious point to make here is that the victims of Grenfell didn’t have hindsight. They were locked in the midst of an unfolding tragedy that was entirely out of their control, not looking back on it in a radio studio and musing on what might have been.
They would have been in fear for their lives, many of them confused or affected by smoke. When told to remain by those charged with keeping them safe, they heeded that advice from their would be rescuers. How can any of us judge that behaviour with the luxury of hindsight?
So, Mogg wants us to believe that he was simply musing on the flawed nature of the ‘stay put policy’ and expressing his bewilderment at why people wouldn’t simply ignore it and flee anyway, and that he just didn’t think about the impact of his words. But, even if that only makes him guilty of detached indifference as opposed to cruel indifference. Neither get him off the hook and both make him unfit for office.
He is either oblivious to the impact of his comments or he genuinely believes he’s smarter than the victims. It has all the hallmarks of a sense of superiority shared by many of his Tory peers.
In addition, to fixate solely on the behaviour of those who perished is eerily similar to the aftermath of Hillsborough, which saw a concerted attempt to shift blame and undermine the memory of those who died. It’s both deeply hurtful and a distraction from the other issues that contributed to the disaster. This is also doubly callous, given that the bereaved still suffer and many survivors who did manage to get out will be experiencing trauma and even guilt.
Focusing on one part of the system – such as the fire brigade, or the actions of individuals – without recognising the impact of unprecedented cuts to fire services as a result of austerity, and the upstream political and commercial decisions that made this disaster almost inevitable and entirely avoidable, is to repeat the failures of the past. It is distressing, in 2019, after all that has gone before, that we are faced with the same strategy of scapegoating and victim blaming that we have seen in previous disasters.
These tragedies continue to happen, and will in the future until we change our approach, to one that focuses on learning.
Let me be clear here, understanding how people behave in a crisis is important. It can help shape the response of emergency services and the development of safer systems. However, unless that analysis is accompanied by an understanding of systems and context, it ends up as nothing more than victim blaming. It’s therefore no surprise to me that people have interpreted Mogg’s comments as cruel.
The response does seem to have surprised him though. Why is that?
I can see that the way we interpret the world is shaped by many things, including past experiences, our environment and our expectations. All of these things generate preconceived ideas about people and why things happen. These become our biases and prejudices. They shape our attitudes and the decisions we make in life.
If Rees Mogg had been brought up on a neglected council estate, would his view of the fire, its consequences and aftermath be different? Of course they would. He has never and will never experience life from the same perspective as the Grenfell victims. Understanding this fact is crucial because it lies at the root of why our society is organised the way it is, and why our democracy consistently lets us down.
If we continue to accept the existence of extreme wealth and privilege living side-by-side with profound poverty, and worse still concentrate power and influence into the hands of the already advantaged, then we will continue to see politicians and governments that are increasingly detached from the reality of the lives of the people they serve.
This simple fact is at the heart of Rees Mogg’s comments about Grenfell. It’s also why he can calmly refer to food-banks as ‘uplifting,’ and why he can treat Parliament like a pantomime, lounging on the benches while chaos ensues all around him. Because it doesn’t mean the same things to him as it does to others.
It’s also why Ian Duncan Smith says ‘anyone can live on £7 a day,’ and why politicians who are independently wealthy can claim expenses for breakfast, while telling the rest of the country that there’s a need for belt tightening.
And, it explains how these same people can trot out the tired old line that work is the path to prosperity, despite record levels of in work poverty. They just don’t live in the same world and, to quote the Prime Minister’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, some of them simply don’t care.
So, I don’t know if Jacob Rees Mogg’s comments were the result of cruel indifference, a sense of superiority or whether he is so detached from the reality of most people’s daily struggles, that he simply doesn’t get it. It may well be all of the above.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. The results are the same either way. However, I do worry about being governed by people who can’t understand the pain their words cause, and even worse base their policy decisions on a world view that isn’t even in the same universe as most people.
The implications for our future, should he and his party win the election, are stark. We should all ask ourselves, what kind of society do we want and who is best placed to represent us and our values? If we want a society built on compassion, fairness and justice, then a vote for the Tories should be unthinkable.
I’m reminded of Tony Benn’s thoughts on questioning the suitability of those who would rule over us. He argued that we should pose three simple challenges or tests before deciding whether to accept their right to govern; where did you get your power, in whose interests do you wield it, and how do we get rid of you?
We will all have the opportunity to answer that last question on December 12th. Use your vote wisely, and cast it in favour of those who will pledge to govern with compassion and for candidates who understand your concerns. I’d give Labour’s manifesto a look if I were you.
This post was edited to reduce word count, improve readability and correct grammar issues at 22:00 on 5th November 2019. Thanks for feedback.