A Relic of the Past, A Danger to the Future
Musa Okwonga explores the controversial Conservative politician’s popularity and what it represents about modern England.
Why does a certain segment of Middle England seem to need Jacob Rees-Mogg?
After the Conservative politician’s instantly infamous media appearance this week, the question is relevant again. For those who haven’t seen it, Rees-Mogg’s moment came in an interview on LBC radio with presenter Nick Ferrari. As the two of them discussed the Grenfell Tower Fire disaster, in which 72 people died, Rees-Mogg remarked that “the more one’s read over the weekend about the report and about the chances of people surviving, if you just ignore what you’re told and leave you are so much safer. And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do.”
Rees-Mogg’s implication – that he and the presenter, a fellow affluent white male, were far too streetwise to have burned to death – was greeted with widespread anger and revulsion.
A few hours later, Andrew Bridgen, a colleague of his in the Conservative Party, went on BBC Radio 4 to defend his comments. “But we want very clever people running the country, don’t we…? That is a by-product of what Jacob is and that is why he is in a position of authority.” Like Rees-Mogg, Bridgen would issue a full apology shortly afterwards, but for several of those who survived the Grenfell disaster, interviewed days later by Channel 4, the damage was already done. Despite calls for their resignation, both politicians, as at time of writing, remain in office.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this grim episode is Bridgen’s defence of Rees-Mogg, which explains why one section of Middle England – that Little England so utterly fearful of the outsider – so badly needs him. “Jacob is not from that [working class] background, he is very very well educated,” he said. “He is privileged. I think people will want our brightest and best making decisions that don’t just affect ourselves but affect millions of people. They need to make good decisions. Nothing Jacob said detracts from his ability to make the right decisions to affect millions of people.”
For Bridgen, and many others like him, Rees-Mogg enjoys the benefit of an enduring English myth: that of the upper class figure as superhero; a sort of Victorian Avenger who will swoop in when the country is struggling and save the day.
This myth originated in the days of the East India Company, when Englishmen of Rees-Mogg’s social status swaggered about the planet and simply claimed its resources as if they were their birthright. While normal people – that is to say, working class people – took their orders and knew their place, people like Rees-Mogg defied those orders and took what they wished. At a time when the country’s global reputation is vastly diminished, with some even seeing it as being bullied by the big bad EU, Rees-Mogg offers a comforting reminder of a more overbearing era. He is the talisman they cannot do without. As long as people like him are in power, as long as the class structures which created him persist, then maybe one day England can Make itself Great Again too.
While Rees-Mogg is very good at making money, there is little sign – given his most notable interventions in the public sphere – that he is anywhere near the brightest or the best at addressing the living standards of his fellow citizens. He is supremely determined to tell women what to do with their bodies, being opposed to abortion in all cases. He approvingly tweeted a speech by the far-right AfD, one of whose leading figures has just been described by the general secretary of Germany’s governing party as a Nazi. During one of the most heated stages of the Brexit debates in Parliament, he could be found lounging on the front bench in the House of Commons, as if it were his sunbed. When Theresa May’s Brexit deal collapsed, making it more likely that the UK would leave the EU without a deal, Rees-Mogg held a champagne party, oblivious to the harm feared by unions and businesses alike.
The common thread running through these interventions is not a keen intellect or a sharp wit: it is a staggering lack of empathy, bordering upon contempt, for anyone who has ever suffered significant hardship.
Rees-Mogg seems like a man utterly out of time – and that is exactly his appeal. To his supporters, he represents a thrilling form of revival. Ideologically, he hails from an age in which the deserving poor escaped poverty through their own native wit – rather, presumably, like Rees-Mogg would have hopped down through several floors of smoke and temperatures reaching 1,000C – and where the undeserving poor didn’t escape poverty or perhaps even burned alive.
Of course, Rees-Mogg is not a superhero, he is a symptom. He is a sign that we live in a time where social policy has become so regressive that he feels comfortable as its frontman.
The “harsh and uncaring ethos” of our current political moment has given fresh life to his myth. The question for Rees-Mogg is why someone so unsuited for public office should want to go anywhere near it. The answer seems to be that he seeks power for its own sake, that he enjoys and thinks that he deserves dominion.
The problem for his country, and for its upcoming general election, is that very many voters seem to think that he deserves it too.