Spiritual leader of the Leavers; cult figure on social media; future prime minister?
It’s been a good week for fans of haunted drainpipes, Victorian undertakers, or cartoon giraffes with monocles that drop from their eyes every time they see an uncouth hippo. Jacob Rees-Mogg is back in the news, and now our only hope is that he turns out to be one of those momentary, summertime fads like fidget spinners, loom bands, or human dignity.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Rees-Mogg phenomenon (Rees-Moggenomenon) is how boringly predictable it is. It’s utterly, perfectly apt that we find ourselves in a position where a man with the pallor of drizzle, the intonation of a serial killer shouting instructions to a victim at the bottom of a well, and the easy way with people of a spreadsheet that has been given life, should now be thought of as a leading political figure, a star of social media and even an outside contender to be Prime Minister. People say he’s a Wodehousian figure. I hope it’s not because they believe he would be happy to do paid propaganda work for the Nazis.
A couple of weeks ago, the country was agog at the birth of Rees-Mogg’s sixth child, Sixtus (although whether people were more impressed with his fecundity or the fact that he managed to swim all the way upstream to spawn again is unclear). Normally, in this country, when someone’s lifestyle is funded by the taxpayer we take great, hooting pleasure in telling them to be more sexually continent. But for Rees-Mogg, even though last year the state gave his mother-in-law £7.6 million to do up her ancestral home, there’s nothing but hushed admiration, and we can doubtless look forward to the imminent arrivals of Septimus, Octopus, Nonce and Declan.
A few days later he was on Question Time, with the air of an aggrieved hosepipe, telling us all why the government was against public sector pay increases. He said they ‘do not do this because they are unkind’, in the tones of someone who’s having to thrash his groundskeeper, but who’s very disappointed about the whole thing.
Herein, of course, lies the secret of Rees-Mogg’s appeal. To him, teaching or nursing or working in the emergency services is not a job demanding pay. It’s a service, which can be repaid (or not) out of kindness. In his world, the matter of whether or not people should be paid enough so that they don’t have to visit food banks is not one of moral justice or economic necessity, but of a benevolent government displaying its kindness. You don’t need public servants if you can afford actual ones.
The Great British public, of course, love this stuff. We’re a nation of cap-doffing forelock-tuggers who want nothing more than to be told that we rule a wave. We want nothing more than to be called into Rees-Mogg’s parlour, so that we can keep our eyes fixedly on the ground and mutter: ‘Begging your pardon, guv’nor, it’s the wife, see? Got a touch of the old scrofula, and we… we wondered if you mightn’t… well, if you mightn’t prima nocte it out of her, if it’s not too much trouble.’
It’s appropriate, then, that Rees-Mogg is becoming the standard-bearer for the Brexit-as-culture-war movement. Although it styled itself as a freewheeling, liberty-loving, democratic movement, it doesn’t take much to scrape off the atom-thin veneer and see the servile, self-hating cur that lurks within.
It was, fundamentally, a freedom-hating movement, one more than willing to give up citizenship in favour of being a subject. It was supported by the type of faux-libertarians (‘fibbertarians’) who want to give the government more power to tell you where you can go, what you can do, where you can live, what you’ll have to pay them so that you can trade, and whom you can love. Taking back control is sheer meddlesomeness when you’re willing to give up that control to our political class.
The argument rang most hollow when Quitlings railed against the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU. Of course, they had a point. As an institution the EU is unresponsive and, in parts, undemocratic. Just look at Greece. You don’t, however, get to claim that democracy is the driving reason that you don’t want to be part of the EU if you’re happy to be part of a country with an unelected second house, a hereditary monarchy and heads of government who happily take meetings with media barons whenever possible.
To retreat from the concept of active citizenship to the passive, docile, fawning position of the subject is not brave, it is fearful; it is not strong, it is weak; it is not a mark of a confident nation, but of one desperately afraid of the modern world.
It’s trite to point out that the campaign that pitched itself as anti-establishment was very much part of the establishment, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of it. The owner of Butlins spent £500,000 trying to convince us to leave the EU, but we shouldn’t ask why he might want foreign holidays to become more expensive. We’ve seen Crispin Odey, the hedge fund manager who donated £870,000 to promote leaving the EU, made £220 million for his clients speculating in the days following last summer’s vote. Let’s not forget that every time the pound plummets against the euro, Nigel Farage’s salary (paid in euros) becomes worth more. What do all of these investment bankers and City traders and business owners have in common? A love of liberty? Well, that, and a sufficiently diversified portfolio to weather the post-Brexit storms.
This was a movement that dressed naked authoritarianism up in the trousers of liberty. They knew that if you tell people that they are great, independent thinkers, they will believe you, and will do whatever you tell them to. How fitting, then that the man who is the movement’s current spiritual figurehead is someone who is most famous for having gone campaigning with his nanny.
It was always confusing to believe that the Remain campaign should have managed to make itself look more patrician than a man who once took two hired employees to hold a book above his neck at Glyndebourne, to stop it catching the sun, rather than, say, buying a hat. However, it becomes a lot easier to understand when you realise that, despite what they said, people actually don’t mind being told what to do. We have no problem with meddlesome officials telling us how to live our lives. As long as they’re the right sort of person.