Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons in the last parliament, has been obliged to make a public apology this week because of his deeply insensitive comments about the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. He gives the impression of being a man to whom apologies do not easily come and many people will have enjoyed his discomfort. He often sounds supercilious, condescending, dismissive, out of touch. ‘Minister for the 18th century’ is his nickname.
Rees-Mogg has led a highly privileged life. Eton. Oxford. Hedge fund director. His father was a peer and editor of The Times. He has named his children after Archbishops of Canterbury, popes and saints. Like the Prime Minister and other so-called ‘posh boys’ in the Tory party, his behaviour and manner suggest a strong sense of entitlement. Born to rule.
But before we get too judgemental about him, let us reflect on ourselves. A sense that one is due certain things is not confined to such as he. My mother was at the opposite end of the social spectrum but still had a very particular sense of entitlement. She did believe that after struggling through a tough year she deserved a two-week holiday in a very modest resort on the east coast. More than that, that she believed she was entitled to good weather and expressed a strong sense of injustice if she did not get it!
This week we heard a lecture on Brexit which focused on ‘English exceptionalism’ – the belief that our country is somehow special. Shakespeare captures the spirit of it in Richard II: ‘this sceptred isle…this other Eden…this happy breed of men…this precious stone set in a silver sea…’. Add to that the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA, its ambition for a ‘special deal with the EU’ and Rule Britannia and there you have it. The fact that the lecture was given by an Englishman and with no hint whatever of malice or cynicism reinforced the argument.
I confess I have taken in a dose of ‘English exceptionalism’ with my mother’s milk. In the days before most of the horrors of empire were fully known, she was quietly but fiercely proud of being English. Nothing really wrong with that. The problems come when the behaviour that expresses that belief disadvantages or oppresses others.
I have come to see that I am at risk of what could be a destructive sense of entitlement. As a white, male, educated, able-bodied, home-owner what do I think I am entitled to? When do I get upset if I think I am not receiving my dues? Can I look back and identify times when my own sense of entitlement led me to actions or attitudes which I may now regret? Can I see my own foibles replicated in the wider social and political context? And in the church?
These are not comfortable questions to ponder. I am sure that ‘the Mogg’ has had a tougher week than I have. But some of my precious assumptions have been challenged this week. Never a bad thing!