Damn Rees-Mogg’s ‘Politics of Civility’
The Conservative MP’s promise to bring back ‘civilised political debate’ in his new GB News show is an insult to the people harmed by this Government, writes Iain Overton
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In typical antediluvian fashion, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg announced his new role as the host of a show for GB News with a tweet declaring that “civilised political debate will be my watchwords”.
His programme will feature live interviews and discussions on current affairs, as well as more “light-hearted topics such as ‘good Somerset cider’ and classic cars”. And Rees-Mogg has promised – as he always promises – to offer up measured and polite debate in an age (as he sees it) of division and extreme.
Rees-Mogg’s latest career will do wonders for his ego. Having come to prominence via social media, and after enjoying a brief period in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, he currently resides in the shadows of the backbenches. Clearly he is hankering again for the spotlight.
But the claim that one of the UK’s most prominent Brexiters and culture warriors can bring civility to British politics is one that deserves scrutiny. Not just for its hypocrisy, but also for the deeper trends it reveals in attempts to exsanguinate any hot-blooded anger following years of Conservative Party mismanagement.
The first is the notion of sanctimony. Like a provincial 19th Century parish priest, the subtext of Rees-Mogg’s framing is that he offers to GB News a pathway of redemption – both for the channel and his party. He will bring politeness back to politics. Decorum to debate. Ethics to erudition.
It’s comfort food to a part of British life that believes we have seen a decline in stiff-upper lip propriety in the national spirit. Rees-Mogg, a man who has said he has never cried as an adult and neither should grown men, presents in his claim to civility the subtext that the nation has become uncivilised.
It’s a ‘barbarians at the gates’ framing that has seeped into Conservative political debate – one that began with the EU as the cancer in the soul of the country, and has ended with the notion that a plethora of enemies (migrants, feminists, the LGBTQ+ community and many more) all pose an existential threat to our way of life.
Most importantly, though, is this notion of civility as the weapon and preserve of the right – while the left are maligned as uncivilised bullies, threatening British values.
The unions have been condemned for being bullies by the Sun. Wokeness is condemned for not being “nice” in the Telegraph. The Express suggests all of Britain is becoming increasingly impolite. Civilisation, in their eyes, is threatened by the disappearance of values that they believe once made Britain Great: fortitude, gentility and chivalry.
To prove this, just look at the use of the word ‘civility’ in the House of Commons in the past two decades. According to the House of Commons’ search-engine, Huddersfield at Hansard, it’s shot up.
Ironically, Brexit was the moment for that lift-off – a referendum which Rees-Mogg championed, seemingly unconcerned that it would lead to the very division and nastiness he now seeks to be the cure for. The vote was immediately followed by rises in hate crimes against minority groups and, despite promises that Brexit ‘got done’, the issue continues to divide.
In a way, there is some merit in this ambition for civility. The toxic sludge of social media is hard for many MPs, especially women and minorities who are particularly at risk from certain forms of abuse on Twitter. Threats of aggression ‘stalk’ members of Parliament. One report found that parliamentarians received more than 130,000 toxic messages in just six weeks.
Should Rees-Mogg though be the person who brings enlightenment to the debate?
Did he apply his own claimed approach to civility when he spoke at the dinner of the Traditional Britain Group – an alt-right organisation that has called for British people of colour to be deported? Or when he tweeted a video from the far-right party Alternative for Germany? Or when he referred to London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “Red Khan” and criticised the “loony left-wing wheezes” – so much so that the Speaker asked him to “dampen the tone down”.
No, he did not.
Did he offer up nuanced discussion when he, in July 2017, promised Brexit would cut the costs of our clothes, food and wine by some 20%? Given that today basic school clothing cost 66.6% more than he had promised, the cost of a basket of food has increased by some 97%, and popular wines now cost some 43% more than they did five years ago, clearly he was wrong. But did he apologise for this gross exaggeration?
No, he did not.
Did he show any remorse when it was found that a City firm he helped to found had established an investment fund in Dublin ahead of the UK leaving the European Union? Did he show contrition when it was found he had profited from the sale of abortion pills despite also attacking abortion as a “cult of death“? Did he show signs of self-awareness when he – a man famed for insisting civil servants to stop working from home – tried to prevent the release of data about the use of Commons work passes?
No, he did not.
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Civilised debate requires taking responsibility when you are wrong. It demands humility and a willingness to admit when one is mistaken. In refusing to admit that, for instance, Brexit has had serious and painful consequences to the British economy and society, Rees-Mogg has shown his own failure to be civil.
Instead he is someone who refuses to own up to their mistakes and defends their position at all costs.
Above all, his call for civilised debate implies that debate be calm and measured. It refuses to permit anger, sadness, hurt and fear in the conversation. It negates – in a political sphere – the righteous indignity of millions of households struggling with bills and caught in the cold spiral of poverty. It says: if you swear or curse, no matter what this Government has done to you, you lose the argument.
But anger is a righteous weapon to rail at iniquity. Hard words are required to call out hypocrites. Outrage is a tool of virtue when challenging a government that employs lies with impunity, bullying, tax avoidance and toxic conspiracy theories – not to mention the sexual abuse allegations that are all injurious to the body politic and to the country.
So, no, Mr Rees-Mogg. We see through your attempts to reframe political debate as the domain of patricians. Your belief that chatting about old motor cars and jars of cider will somehow transcend the cost of living crisis, and your implicit insistence that debate would ever change your mind about anything: we see through them.
Because we know what civilised debate should really mean: to base politics on facts and evidence, and not to attempt to detract from years of Conservative failure with a bit of nostalgic banter.