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Jacob Rees-Mogg is as unforgivable as he is ridiculous. First, let’s take on the unforgivable stuff.
He has traduced the civil service. Last week, he sent out a series of tweets about the Treasury’s attempts to model the effect of various Brexit scenarios on the economy. Each one ended with the hashtag “treasury gate”. This is pure Chavismo; pure populism.
It is true that the civil service and the elected government have always had a relationship marked with anxiety. In 1916, Britain was in dire straits. We were losing badly on the continent, in the worst of all wars. The British state was ill-prepared to wage a war of unparalleled scale and complexity.
It was the civil service which saved the day.
Maurice Hankey, who served as the first Cabinet Secretary for decades afterwards, was brought in by Lloyd George to organize the war effort. He immediately created a streamlined War Cabinet. In the process, he centralized government into a “supreme command” structure with power flowing from a pinnacle. It worked – Britain avoided another embarrassment in the style of Gallipoli and the Somme. And eventually, we just about won.
The British civil service is one of our greatest and most important institutions. And so important for our democracy. Its profoundly liberal outlook tempers the absurd (and anti-democratic) ethos of yes-no referendums. It lends a sense of gentle continuity to our national story, transcending the passing fashions of the popular will.
In openly attacking the Civil Service, Rees Mogg makes an attack on British public life in particular, and on democracy in general.
So much for the unforgivable; now for the plain ridiculous. Much has been made of his media style – the phenomenon of ‘Mogg-momentum’. It is just as rotten.
He obviously had a phase at university when he started dressing up in old-fashioned clothes, affected a funny, strangulated drawl, and got into politics, and someone, somewhere found it quite amusing. Maybe quite a few people found it amusing. And bingo! Moggy finds an identity for himself. Throw in a few whacky, “radical” opinions, hardline on abortion, for example, and Mogg had a point of difference, he had created a character.
Everyone has affectations at university: that shirt, those funny cigarettes, that earring, but most people grow out of it. At university, you need it – it’s a time of real insecurity, where role-playing is often the only way of making sense of things. But then again, most people grow up.
Affectation is a way of avoiding complexity. Corbyn is much the same. He decided who he was in 1972 and that was that. ‘Adulting’ done stupid.
But Jacob Rees-Mogg is cleverer than Corbyn. Well, he’s quite clever.
Take his garbled take on Brexit: “This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things.” Garbled, half-remembered schoolboy history can sound clever (he went to Eton: it’s a good school), but it’s harder to be serious and clever, not frivolous and glib.
I can give you another list: the Boer war, the Amritsar massacre, the Mau Mau insurgency. Yes, we lose all these things.
Thatcherism did many odd things to politics. It made it less class ridden for one thing. So when someone comes along who openly apes a particular class background, everyone sits up and notices. Rees Mogg plays on the anxieties of a less class-bound society, which makes possible his recycled identity trope personality politics gulf.
Jacob Rees Mogg’s state of permanent adolescence would be a lot funnier, if it weren’t such a bad joke.