Euan McColm: Why Jacob Rees-Mogg is right about food banks

Jacob Rees-Mogg's socially illiberal views might justifiably outrage many people , but he shouldn't be vilified for saying what he did about food banks. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Jacob Rees-Mogg's socially illiberal views might justifiably outrage many people , but he shouldn't be vilified for saying what he did about food banks. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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The right-wing Tory’s praise for volunteers who help the desperately poor isn’t remotely the same thing as turning a blind eye to poverty, writes Euan McColm

The Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was, until recently, little more than a comical figure.

A buttoned-up toff with impeccable manners, Rees-Mogg was the sort of old-school Tory it was acceptable for your metropolitan elite types to tolerate; he’d pop up on Have I Got News For You, be marvellously self-deprecating and amusingly fogeyish, and surely we could all agree that he was a decent enough cove?

The laughing stopped when it became apparent that Rees-Mogg was not a caricature of an out-of-touch Tory but a genuinely out-of-touch one, with some views that many voters found deeply distressing.

Discussing his opposition to gay marriage and abortion – in all circumstances, even in pregnancies resulting from rape – Rees-Mogg revealed himself to be anything but the jovial Bufton Tufton of reputation.

Understandably, there was considerable outrage about the MP’s views. Defenders of the politician pointed out that his beliefs were entirely in keeping with his Catholic faith. Others wondered whether he was the sort of person who should be sitting in a 21st century legislature.

Of course, as his supporters assert, Rees-Mogg is perfectly entitled to hold the views he does. And the defence of his right to express his beliefs should be protected as vigilantly as the right of others to condemn him as a relic and campaign energetically against him. Rees-Mogg’s beliefs failed to spark much of a debate. Instead, he became a new hate figure, a symbol of all that is terrible – from their opponents’ perspective – about the Conservatives. How could anyone, in good conscience, vote Tory knowing that they were all cut from the same cloth as Rees-Mogg?

Part of being a proper hate figure means never being able to say anything in public without it being held up as evidence of one’s despicable nature. This is where Rees-Mogg now finds himself. Any and all of the things he says in public for the rest of his career will be, to someone, proof that he is a monster.

But might it be possible for someone to be wrong about some things such as, say, equality and women’s reproductive rights and yet right about other things? Can’t we at least make an effort to indulge that degree of complexity?

Rees-Mogg is at the centre of a second political storm after remarking that he found the existence of food banks “rather uplifting”.

This – especially if one is a millionaire Tory – is the wrong thing to say.

Rees-Mogg was challenged to volunteer at a food bank if he wanted to see how “uplifting” they actually are.

Chris Price, the executive director of Pecan, which runs the Trussell Trust-affiliated Southwark food bank in south London, responded by interpreting Rees-Mogg’s remarks as the MP saying “it is great that people are in poverty and that we are here to help them”.

This, even the most committed Rees-Mogg hater would surely conceded, is not exactly what he was saying.

We’re allowed to think the existence of Macmillan nurses is uplifting without anyone suggesting we’re in favour of cancer. Yet, on the highly politicised issue of food banks, praise for their existence is seen as – at best – selfish acceptance of the issues of poverty that lead some to have to use them.

But isn’t the existence of food banks uplifting? Don’t they reflect a compassionate society?

There are currently around 2,000 food banks across the UK, doing vital work that – perhaps – there would be less demand for if the Conservative Party hadn’t reformed (it’s the new word for slashed, everyone! Get into it!) welfare. But we are where we are and, while we’re here, who doesn’t appreciate the work of the volunteers who run food banks?

The issue of food banks undoubtedly has the power to move people. You’ll recall perhaps how it became the norm during the 2014 independence referendum campaign for activists to incorporate collections for food banks into every event. To the sceptical eye, this often looked like the poorly planned politicisation of the subject. People would descend on, say, George Square to demonstrate their commitment to independence and – thus – to compassion, and leave behind a contribution to a pile of carrier bags, the contents of which sometimes went undistributed.

The food bank is the perfect shorthand for uncaring government; only the most callous politician, after all, could support policies which somehow necessitated their use.

There continues to be speculation in Tory ranks that the previously untested Rees-Mogg might yet be the next party leader. This unlikely but not impossible scenario (the Tories came dangerously close to choosing Andrea Leadsom during the last contest) means close attention will continue to be paid to the things Rees-Mogg says and does.

This will, I should imagine, mean further embarrassment for socially liberal Tories, such as the party’s Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson. Hey-ho – if that’s the price the Conservatives must pay for the continued presence in public life of Rees-Mogg then it seems an entirely reasonable one.

Theresa May has not yet requested the presence of Rees-Mogg around the cabinet table but, even as a backbencher, he is now the highest profile proponent of a deeply socially-conservative Toryism that, at best, resents recent progress on equality issues. That means he will continue to enjoy influence in the Tory party far beyond his rank.

For as long as Rees-Mogg espouses views about same-sex marriage and abortion that remind us of darker days when gay men and women lived in fearful secrecy and desperate women were drawn into using the services of back-street quacks, his opponents will find in Rees-Mogg a high-profile and entirely legitimate target.

But while many of his views are easy to condemn, Jacob Rees-Mogg is right about food banks. Their necessity may be troubling but it is uplifting to see good people helping those in need. This sort of charity shows our society at its best.