Nothing But Feeling

Rachel Malik

There was a moment in her interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight on Friday when Theresa May mentioned a woman who had escaped the Grenfell Tower fire in just a T-shirt and knickers. The woman stays with you. Very briefly, something broke through the repetitions and evasions of the official discourse being deployed by the government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and ‘interested’ corporate parties who insist that regulations were complied with and profess to welcome any investigation.

Downing Street had clearly decided that May’s performances on Thursday hadn’t worked. It was feeling that the prime minister was sent out to communicate the following day; her repeated use of the words ‘horrific’, ‘terrible’ and ‘horrendous’ was the obvious index of this. And her repeated reference to the £5 million emergency fund, with its connotations of practical immediacy, was intended to make up for the lofty distance suggested by the public inquiry she had announced the day before. By Saturday morning, direct speech had been abandoned altogether, with Damian Green, the first secretary of state, insisting that ‘she's distraught by what happened as we all are.’

It’s easy to charge May with a lack of empathy, a personal psychological failing. But her evolving language after the Grenfell fire is part of a bigger official discourse, which is itself in crisis. It is an axiom of popular knowledge that politicians never answer the question that’s put to them; a cliché that most political representatives don’t listen. Conversely, political parties never seem to tire of telling their constituencies what they are thinking or what they ‘really’ meant when they voted for Brexit or Ukip or Labour or the Lib Dems. And when they don’t respond predictably or conveniently, when they respond with anger or contempt, or propose an alternative version of events or proposal for what should be done, it is conventional for politicians to represent this not as conflict or divergence but as a communication failure: we just didn’t get our message over clearly enough.

The work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, gave an interview to Channel 4 News on Friday evening. As he tried to step deftly between ‘regulations’ and ‘guidance’ while saying nothing that would implicate him or his government in anything at all, it was almost inevitable that Gauke would slip. The speed at which he self-corrected ‘simplify the regulations’ to ‘simplify the guidance’ was remarkable. There was a startling lack of concrete nouns in Gauke’s language, and had it not been for the interviewer, Cathy Newman, you would hardly have known what events Gauke was talking about. He used the word ‘fire’ only twice in the six-minute interview, and despite Newman’s repeatedly asking whether the residents of Britain’s 4000 tower blocks could feel safe, Gauke avoided using the words ‘safe’ or ‘safety’. He wasn’t speaking to the moment but to a probable future; his words had been chosen to withstand the scrutinies of inquest, investigation and enquiry. He said nothing that attributed responsibility to anyone or anything. The Downing Street statement that support for victims in the immediate aftermath of the fire ‘was not good enough’ is comparable:

The response of the emergency services, NHS and the community has been heroic. But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.

This crucially obscures the question of where the support might have – should have – come from.

Gauke’s replies were part of a catch-all disaster script, stuck together with boilerplate phrases: ‘we must get to the bottom of … we must understand … we mustn’t jump to conclusions.’ The ‘we’ of government is a problem in this crisis, raising a raft of questions about responsibility. May, Gauke et al. can adopt a ‘we’ quite comfortably if it is the ‘we’ that makes money available or instructs other agencies (fire services, local councils etc.) to make checks, follow guidelines and, by inference, bear responsibility for the fire and what follows. This ‘we’ also does vaguer stuff such as offer condolences, ‘get to the bottom of’ things and ‘try to fully understand’ them. But it quickly finds itself in tricky territory. ‘We’ mustn’t rush to conclusions or pre-empt investigations, and it can soon look as if ‘we’ isn’t doing much at all except standing on the sidelines and exhorting.

Responsibility is a double bind. The government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and the companies they outsource to, must appear to be agents who are in control and capable of dealing with what May called ‘an absolutely horrendous tragedy’. But they also want to deflect from themselves any responsibility for causing it, with the effect that they sound distant, defensive, repetitive and on occasion paralysed. Discursively they cannot win, which is one reason the fetish for feeling is so critical.

In May’s Newsnight interview, the fire was a ‘tragedy’, an ‘event’, an ‘incident’, at one point, agonisingly, a ‘circumstance’, nouns nearly always preceded by such epithets as ‘horrendous’, ‘terrible’, ‘terrifying’, which were themselves sometimes preceded by ‘absolutely’. Painful as this discourse is, it is uncomplicatedly intransitive: it promises nothing but feeling, and sidesteps hard questions about responsibility and agency. So if there is psychological failing, there is also, more importantly, political strategy. Virtues and their opposites have historically specific forms and perhaps it isn’t surprising that empathy and understanding, the demonstration of feeling for others, have assumed such significance in such a fundamentally unequal society.


  • 19 June 2017 at 2:40pm
    IPFreely says:
    Don't worry, be happy. The only other example of a political leader betraying his/her complete incompetence I can think of is Eden trying to justify attacking Egypt in 1956. (Oh, and Sir Alex but he was relatively harmless, a beached Tory trying his best.) That May is still in office is incomprehensible to me. She probably sees herself as a successor to Thatcher, battening down the hatches as Jonny Argie attacks, seeing in a flash how she was going to get out of the one. And what is worse, the lackeys in the media and in her party who are telling that she is doing a good job.

  • 20 June 2017 at 1:24pm
    Apala C says:
    I did a double take when I heard May say,
    “Knickers” in the interview. I instantly wondered if it had been a deliberate word choice to help feminise her – or if we were catching a glimpse of the inner May. Never have I lingered for so long on the semiotics of “knickers”.

    • 21 June 2017 at 10:49am
      Lashenden says: @ Apala C
      I found May's enunciation of 't-shirt and knickers' both discomforting and illuminating. As an attempt project the PM's personal authenticity it was jarring and implausible, as an example of empathetic public language it was hopelessly crude but also oddly prurient, somehow only succeeding in adding bodily shame to the tribulations of the individual she was describing. I'd totally agree that we were catching a glimpse - of the Conservative Party's panicked desperation as the incoherence of it's ideology and addiction to power at any cost becomes evident to all.

    • 28 June 2017 at 1:12pm
      GeorgeMKeynes says: @ Apala C
      I thought definitely the inner May. Told to try to imagine being a victim, the closest she could get was the extreme embarrassment that would be felt by a vicar's daughter finding herself in public with only T-shirt and knickers.

  • 22 June 2017 at 3:54pm
    IPFreely says:
    It gets worse and worse. According to the manufacturer, the cladding was suitable because it was "fire resistant ". Is it possible that anybody doubts that the cladding was the major reason for the incredibly rapid spread of the flames upwards and around the whole building. The responses of the administration have been abysmal. One leader resigned, which will help nobody. How long will it take the former tenants to find suitable, affordable housing? When will the prime minister resign? This is one of the most appalling scandals since the days of Rachmann and his like.

  • 29 June 2017 at 7:17am says:
    Yesterday on Radio 4 news, the leader of a volunteer group which has been trying to collect and collate the names of those who lived in the tower in an effort to establish how many were missing, presumed dead, said that no official list of the tower's residents or of those missing had yet been issued. Why not?

  • 30 June 2017 at 8:56pm
    William Wilson says:
    Each day we hear a bit more detail about the cladding, today it was the gap between the cladding and the wall behind that was partly responsible. Many living in similar buildings elsewhere are duly worried and hope for clarification. But many more are looking nervously as their fridge-freezers waiting for them to spontaneously burst into flames as we were told that was the initial cause of the fire. So then there will be more unwanted white goods in front gardens amidst the stacks of discarded cladding. People used to live near the ground and store food in cool cellars.

  • 1 July 2017 at 7:00am
    Vin Arthey says:
    All this needed saying, Rachel. Thank you.

    I was agog when I heard Mrs May say 'knickers', but I remembered an interview with Harriet Harman just a few days before. She was referring to the fire in a tower block of public housing in her own constituency when lives were lost. She got straight to the point. As I recall, she said something like, 'people ran from their homes in just their pyjamas. They had to leave everything, medication, false teeth...' This picture really brought home some reality of the disaster...and I felt ashamed that I hadn't thought of it in these terms myself. It was 'pyjamas' and 'false teeth' that made me sit up.

    And when I heard Mrs May say 'knickers', I thought, 'Ah. She's been re-briefed by her PR people. Harriet Harman has said pyjamas. You say knickers.'

    Yes. This language indicates matters of huge concern. It shows the massive gap between the life experience of many MPs and current ministers, and the rest of the population. Language has become part of the avoidance, conscious and unconscious, of engaging with how most people live.

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