In these uncertain times, it’s understandable if you cling to the constants in your life; things such as family, friends and the media appearances of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And given the unappealing nature of some relatives and the flightiness of pals, sometimes Jacob’s ubiquitous punditry is all you’ve got.
He was on Newsnight again last week, chatting about experts. In this case, the experts at the Office for Budget Responsibility, whose projections suggest the government might soon find itself £59bn out of pocket thanks to Brexit. “There’s a great line from Cicero that there’s nothing so absurd that it hasn’t been said by some philosopher,” Rees-Mogg told the programme. “I think suspicion of experts goes back into antiquity. It’s a very healthy thing to have. Experts, soothsayers, astrologers are all in much the same category.”
This is classic Rees-Mogg. Always with the posh banter, he drops a Cicero reference to remind us of the wisdom of the ancients. Then, while we are distracted by visions of garrulous Roman senators, he casually elides philosophy with all expertise and then all expertise with the reading of chicken entrails.
It’s a loosey-goosey way with language, propagating a cult of ignorance under a veneer of erudition. Again, classic. Rees-Mogg may not have coined the “don’t trust anyone who knows something” meme, but he has been happy to spread it. Last month he was involved in a highly publicised spat with Mark Carney, impugning the Bank of England governor’s impartiality in the Brexit debate.
At the same time he castigated the Treasury for “undermining” the rest of government with its economic forecasts. On both occasions he sought to undermine expertise with suggestions of bias. “I think the Treasury should look at things realistically,” he told the Daily Express. “Government [has] decided Brexit is a) going to mean Brexit and b) is going to be made a success of. And therefore there’s no longer a need to have worst-case scenarios, they need to have realistic ones.”
There’s something nagging at me that says it’s not Rees-Mogg’s commitment to realistic economic forecasting that has put him so firmly in the public eye in 2016; that it’s not what this backbencher says that has seen him mentioned 99 times in the national press in the past month alone, or gets him on the news shows, or into Nigel Farage’s party at the Ritz, or invited back time and again as a guest on television programmes such as Question Time or Have I Got News for You. I wonder if there isn’t another quality to this Eton-educated son of Baron Rees-Mogg of Hinton Blewett that has helped him on his way to ubiquity?
It has become ever more difficult to define class in the UK, despite so much of our culture depending on it. The decline of skilled manual labour and rise of precarious professional employment, the replacement of a landed gentry with a globalised elite, are just some of the trends to make labels of working, middle and upper classes seem faintly ridiculous. Politicians zoom in on smaller groups of demographics and adopt new acronyms to describe them, from Dinks (dual income, no kids) to Jams (just about managing). But yet, in our heads, archetypes of class remain crystal-clear and Rees-Mogg fits the one marked “posh” to a T.
Maybe it’s the Cicero references or the pallor of his skin. Maybe it’s his narrow features or his grandmatronly spectacles. Maybe it’s the fact he used to go campaigning with his nanny. Perhaps it’s just the name. But it’s the case that Rees Mogg not only is posh but seems posh. And as such is afforded particular benefits by the British people at large.
To an extent the MP for North East Somerset follows the model set by Boris Johnson. Just like Rees-Mogg, Johnson developed his public “Bojo” persona alongside a befuddled-looking Paul Merton, where he learned that looking dim but cranking out the polysyllables was a winning combination. It was a shtick that took him from humble Spectator columnist to mayor of London. And it’s still working out for him. Despite running the second-worst leadership election campaign of 2016 (sorry Owen Smith) and offending his European counterparts as a matter of course, 30% of those polled by ICM this week think the new foreign secretary is doing a good job. That’s eight points better than chancellor Philip Hammond, by the way, and 15 better than the leader of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron.
The lesson for me from all this is not that the upper class have stitched up politics for their own benefit. It’s that the British are so fascinated by toffs that we give them a free pass as long as they stay on brand. That we laugh at their Wodehousian eccentricities at the same time as a small voice in the back of our head encourages us to defer to their opinions. Maybe poor old David Cameron might have fared a lot better had he dropped the “call me Dave” stuff and turned up to Downing Street in tweed plus-fours and a dead grouse under his arm. Just a thought.