Britain loves a toff. But the media’s current favourite, Jacob Rees-Mogg, may not be as harmless as he seems
As a student I rented a flat from my old professor who was on sabbatical.
‘Check my post from time to time,’ he asked me, so I did, and one day noticed an envelope (postmarked Brussels), containing a contributors’ form for ‘Who’s Who in Europe’. I soon worked out that this prestigious-sounding (and expensive) tome was in fact a vanity publication, preying on the desire of naïve and gullible Britons to be taken seriously on the continent, during those early years of EEC membership.
When I phoned the professor, he said ‘throw it away,’ but instead I seized the opportunity to create an absurd upper-class spoof character called Lord Rees-Bunce, and the published entry a few months later read: ‘Inventor of the nylon polyamide diaphragm. Education: Attended KY Jelly College, Oxblood. Occupation: Author, and Chairman of UK Rubbergoods. Published books: ‘Travels With A One-Fingered Gynaecologist’, ‘Ramming it Right Up – A Biography of the Pope’, ‘A Knee-Trembler With Mrs Thatcher’, ‘Christ! My Bag Just Burst’. Distinctions: Cycling Proficiency Test (failed). Clubs: Bay City Rollers Fan Club. Hobbies: Mugging people. By the 3rd Edition, Rees-Bunce had also authored ‘You Dozy Belgian Bastards Still Haven’t Sussed’, and to this day, a complimentary copy of ‘Who’s Who in Europe’ sits on my library shelves, next to my well-thumbed Gibbons (they like it, you know, it’s not cruel).
Immediately below my fanciful Rees-Bunce entry was a genuine one for William Rees-Mogg, then the Editor of The Times, who was presumably vain and gullible enough to have fallen for an obvious scam.
In his day, William was universally regarded as a ‘young fogey’, and that accolade has since been passed down to his Tory politician son Jacob, who has (ironically) become in real life an even more ludicrous figure than my fictional creation ever could be.
Widely known as ‘The Honourable Member for the Early 20th Century’, Jacob revels in his own anachronism, permanently wearing a dull double-breasted suit, 1930s BBC announcer spectacles, and a constant look that is part-sneer-part-bafflement. He’s an Adam Adamant from the Edwardian era, who speaks as though he has marbles in his mouth (Elgin, that is), as he addresses 21st century issues from an early 20th century perspective. And so ubiquitous is he on TV, radio, and in newspapers, that his constituents in North-East Somerset must frequently be left wondering whether anybody is actually representing their interests in the House of Commons.
It’s easy to laugh at him (very easy actually). As a student at Trinity, he delighted in cycling around Oxford, sporting his mortar board. As a parliamentary candidate, he took his nanny canvassing with him, and proudly told journalists ‘she made me the man I am’. He’s the sort of bore that PG Wodehouse might have created as a minor character, a humourless dullard in the Drones club with inherited money and no flair, the very brand anthropomorphism of unearned upper-class privilege. He is, after all, said to be worth £150million.
In some respects, he’s very much like his fellow Eurosceptic Etonian and Oxonian Boris Johnson, although Rees-Mogg’s university club was the sober Canning, whereas Boris was in the loutish Bullingdon (as was David Dimbleby, although he likes to keep that very quiet). But we shouldn’t simply laugh at Jacob and Boris, because there’s an underlying nastiness there, which is typical of a large section of the modern Tory party. There was a time (under Heath, Thatcher and Major) when Tory toffs at least had the decency to downplay their unearned good fortune in the lottery of birth, and would attempt to disguise their distaste for common folk. But nowadays they display open contempt for the poor and disadvantaged, mocking them for their humble origins, as Rees-Mogg did when saying (on the record) that ‘John Prescott’s accent certainly stereotypes him as an oaf’.
Boris and his fellow Bullingdon boys, meanwhile, once behaved in ways that would have got them banged up if they’d hailed from a council estate but because they hailed from country estates, they learned early on that most laws only apply to oiks like us not to toffs like them.
Eccentricity is like catnip to television, and all it takes is a bowtie, a twirly moustache, a bouffant hairstyle, a monocle, or merely an upper-class accent to enable shameless privilege to pass itself off as harmless and even amusing oddity.
It’s what magicians call ‘misdirection of attention’, so while we’re mocking Boris’s benign buffoonery, he’s quietly sneaking a poisonous strain of nationalism and xenophobia into public discourse. Look beneath Jacob’s headmasterly sneer and foppish accent, and you’ll find some thoroughly disagreeable views.
His condemnation of same-sex marriages and a woman’s right to abortion, for example, or his support for zero hours contracts for working people. He was also enthusiastic in his statement that ‘I would almost certainly vote for Donald Trump if I was American’.
Rees-Mogg temporarily distanced himself a little from Trump and his self-made billions in the autumn, in the wake of the groping revelations. But oh my dears, one simply has to deal with tradesmen from time to time, and just two weeks ago he was banging the US drum again, telling us that ‘Trump is sympathetic to the UK. From a UK point of view, it’s good news,’ and claiming that the US president’s victory and Brexit were both ‘a victory of the people against the Establishment’. His fawning position towards Trump is therefore pretty clear. But what, I wonder, will the President make of the likes of Rees-Mogg?
There’s a certain class of Englishmen (of which Rees-Mogg is a prime exemplar) who judge all others by the sound that comes out of their mouth, rather than the content of what they say. It’s a form of class hatred – a kind of racism against people who look just like you – and it’s why he ridiculed Prescott, and why he unfailingly plays up his own semi-aristocratic background.
In the US, by contrast, people are judged by their money and talents, not their accent, and Americans would simply smash through this particularly oppressive glass ceiling that keeps so many deferential Brits from ever achieving their full potential. Indeed, I’ve noticed lately that plenty of US talk show hosts, from the Libertarian Howard Stern to the ultra-right Michael Savage, are forthrightly contemptuous of snotty-nosed Brits like Rees-Mogg. So he and his ilk – who look to a closer relationship with the US as some compensation for the shambles of Brexit – should be very careful what they wish for. Americans may love our absurd aristos in TV period dramas – Downton Abbey, The Crown, The Halcyon – and they may love our anachronistic queens and princes too, and our half-timbered history, but they have no special love for real-life sneering toffs like Rees-Mogg.
Rees-Mogg is an Edwardian man who still seems to believe Harold Macmillan’s dictum about the US (first uttered in 1943), that ‘we are Greeks to their Romans’. But Britain couldn’t control America in Macmillan’s day (as we found out to our cost a few years later, over Suez), and we cannot control it now, because the relationship is not between two equals, but between a small country that continually boasts of a ‘special relationship,’ and a large country that barely needs or notices that relationship at all.
Rees-Mogg’s patrician tones and classical references won’t work in Trump’s harsh business world, and we’ll soon find ourselves in the position of a small child in the back seat of the parental car, operating a toy steering wheel and always steering in the same direction as the real driver, just so we can pathetically pretend to ourselves that we still have some control over our own destiny.
Victor Lewis Smith is a television critic, producer and writer