I scarcely thought that 50 years after studying the Law of Tort I should be dredging up my recollection of its principles because they would prove relevant during an election campaign, but whilst observing the furore which arose over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s LBC interview concerning the fire at Grenfell Tower, two long-neglected phrases came to mind.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is known to be one of the most polite and mild-mannered of people in political and public life. Abused by students, his instinct was to walk toward them and engage them in conversation. Surrounded by a baying mob as he walked home from Parliament with his 12-year-old son, he accepted with dignity and grace that this as an unattractive feature of freedom of expression. He has presented his own LBC radio programme, and anyone who listened will know that he treats every one of his callers with unfailing good humour and respect, listening attentively whether they agree with him or not.
When he was interviewed by LBC host Nick Ferrari earlier this week, he was asked about the dreadful fire in the Grenfell Tower block and invited to comment upon the ‘stay put’ policy adopted by the Fire Brigade. Inhabitants of high tower blocks are advised to remain in their homes, making no attempt to reach safety unaided. Many occupants who accepted the advice on the upper floors perished. It is a policy which may well be modified by those who have responsibility to make future decisions in difficult circumstances. It is certainly a policy call without an easy answer in every dangerous situation.
It was while contemplating these matters that the phrase “the agony of the moment” came to mind. The law has long accepted that when a dreadful accident is unfolding, people have to make instant difficult decisions. Some are matters of life and death for the decision-maker or others. Does a car driver accelerate out of trouble, or slam on the brakes? Does s/he maintain the course of the car and let the pedestrian evade, or should the driver swerve and risk hastening the collision as the victim moves the same way?
It is long established that sometimes a bad decision-maker ‘gets lucky’, whereas a reasonable person makes a fair decision that turns out very badly. People often make a disastrous decision “in the agony of the moment”. Sometimes either decision risks disaster: whatever is decided could prove to be entirely justifiable but with a profoundly tragic outcome. The law accepts that not every decision that turns out badly attracts legal liability.
The other phrase I recalled relates to the liability for pets: if your much-loved dog nips somebody every time he goes out for a walk, you will rightly be sued. You know his ill humour and ought to manage him accordingly. But if a placid animal is tormented and exhibits momentary unexpected aggression, you may yet escape being taken before the courts: “every dog is allowed one bite”. One might rationalise both principles as applications of common sense.
Both approaches are rooted in a forgiving approach to ordinary people, and speak to how we ought conduct ourselves. We live in a fallen world: Christ loves us in our imperfection and we ought to be forgiving to each other, especially in times of heightened emotion such as the General Election cycle.
There has been much mis-characterisation of what Jacob Rees-Mogg actually said. He did not look down upon those who lived in Grenfell Tower: he did not judge those who made decisions either way. Some of those who made decisions to leave early survived; others did not. Some who stayed put were conducted to safety by magnificently brave fire fighters; others higher up followed the advice and perished.
Early in the news story, I recall a firefighter explaining his own ethical quandary. Arriving early he had to follow policy and wait outside, suppressing his instinct to enter the building and immediately try to help because the complex problems of maximising the saving of life would be complicated if those in command had firefighters in the building free-lancing and uncoordinated. Horrible as it sounds, sticking to the plan might maximise the overall saving of life, but necessarily others might fall beyond it. Such is the nature of coping with the dangerously unpredictable.
Commanders were doing their best “in the agony of the moment”, but as Napoleon observed: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” The flammable cladding in the modified building added a ‘chimney effect’, causing the fire to spread swiftly upwards on the outside of the structure and was an effect beyond both the original design of the building and the evacuation plans that were originally conceived for it. The modification was the problem, and coping with its unforeseen consequences was the “agony of the moment” decision for those charged with the occupants’ safe evacuation.
Jacob Rees-Mogg had an altogether simpler dilemma in the LBC radio studio. Asked whether he would have followed the official advice, he offered an ordinary layman’s view – to which he is entitled. None of us knows what we would do faced with such a spontaneous question, considering the harrowing circumstances. Which floor are we presuming we are on? How long has the fire been burning? Can we hear the firefighters in the corridors? Are the stairwells filled with impenetrable acrid smoke? Unless you are going to offer all the data, why even ask such a superficial question? In fairness to everyone, it is probably unanswerable in the abstract. We would probably make our decision “in the agony of the moment”.
Even as I write, those charged with making these life-and-death policies are still working on the best solutions in a variety of circumstances. We should pity them for the responsibility they carry, and the unfair expectation that they will always get it right.
Jacob Rees-Mogg characteristically tried to answer the question calmly and rationally, and all hell broke loose. Yet in his (much, much more benign) “agony of the moment” he has been accused of being a dreadful human being. Ignoring the fact that the vast majority of people in the UK do not live in tower blocks, and that even the wealthy do not have gold-plated firemen’s poles installed in their homes, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been pilloried for regarding himself as superior for daring to suggest/guess that he would have followed a “common sense” approach and attempted to evacuate himself and his family forthwith on a self-help basis. He did not, of course, make any such condemnatory judgement; he simply answered when asked.
Even if it sounded wrong, might we all not have applied Occam’s razor to Mr Rees-Mogg’s opinion? Should we not assume that a decent family man was answering the question with a sincere attempt to speculate on how he would discharge his responsibility for his children’s safety in such terrible circumstances? Why should we assume that he was anxious to take a cheap shot at the poor in mortal peril? With everything we know about his essential decency, courtesy and Christian compassion, why would anyone make that assumption?
I was obliged to the firefighter who called in the following day, making the fair point that actually many of us (and doubtless many in Portcullis House) have experienced fire drills in which we are habituated to the idea of making our own way to the outside of the buildings we occupy to designated assembly points. This happens in schools, hospitals, offices, factories and hotels as a matter of routine. Isn’t there a certain normality/”common sense” in following the familiar in extremis? Would you try to find your own way out?
Yet Jacob Rees-Mogg received little consideration for his “agony of the moment” reaction: this Tory dog is not allowed one bite, but with his party’s complicity is packed off to the wilds of Somerset like some embarrassing elderly relative whose presence might embarrass the family if left to wander abroad. This is pretty poor stuff.
Instead of resisting the tyranny of the confidently self-righteous, so many of those who think well of Jacob Rees-Mogg have remained silent, which is a shame. There is, of course, a familiar reason for what is happening, as Saul Alinski explains in his ‘Rules for Radicals‘, which advise just how the politically unscrupulous should take advantage of opportunities afforded by stories of this kind:
Rule 3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s estrangement from tower-block estates made this an especially opportune matter to exploit. Make it sound like he is the only one unfamiliar with tower blocks even though many of his most aggressive critics are no better informed.
Rule 5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
Exaggerate the class war contrast and play down the common humanity that one human being can feel for another in tragic circumstances. In the world of the unforgivingly politically correct, there can be no recognition of human sympathy expressed from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. It is simply unthinkable.
Rule 6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
Much fun can be had by that warm feeling of moral superiority.
Rule 8. Keep the pressure on.
The activist and media sympathisers will raise this at every opportunity. Any time spent discussing this story is time not spent on the much more important issues. It takes an articulate and effective opponent out of the game even if it is by foul play.
Rule 13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalise it and polarise it.
This is the most comprehensive rule for use in all such opportunities. Jacob Rees Mogg’s opinion on how best to react in extreme circumstances is of no actual interest. What is to be pursued is his isolation; by stressing his unique lack of humanity and the contrast between him and the rest of the population. The fact that he was advocating what a significant proportion of the population would have done is largely irrelevant.
What we are seeing in this case is a moralistic melding of the theatre of cruelty and the theatre of the absurd. Normal people, and Christians who are taught not to cast the first stone, should have nothing to do with this kind of political discourse. We are better than this. We should say so plainly.