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The Wrinkly Whisperer

December 14, 2018

British politics is so chaotic that if professional analysts can’t make sense of what’s going on I’m damned if I can. But I do have a hunch about Jacob Rees-Mogg and his relatively new-found popularity.

Over the past few days I’ve been surprised at the number of people I’ve met who support him because they think he’s a jolly good chap, and they’re very convinced by what he says. Most of those people are over sixty. Could it be that they like him not because of what he says but the way he says it? Quiet, studious, gentlemanly. A throwback to the kind of person who would have been a respected personage in the Middle England of the fifties and sixties. A magistrate, a bank manager or a benign member of the landed gentry who lives in the Big House up the road and invites the villagers every year to Christmas drinks. In politics, his style analogues would have been Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and, before his fall, Jeremy Thorpe.

His appearance – the double-breasted suit, the pinstripes and the hairstyle of a Cambridge spy from the thirties – reeks of the kind of authority that was imprinted in the DNA of the middle-class English of a certain age. Not a style that they would adopt themselves, but one to which they would instinctively react with respect. Ronnie Barker looking up to John Cleese in the timeless Frost Report sketch.

He is a man who, even when he spouts poisonous insults – such as describing Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, as a second-rate Canadian politician – does so with sweet civility. Details he reveals of his private life – his devoted nanny, his six children whose names come straight from the classroom of an English public school, his country pile – project him as the epitome of a bygone gentler, kinder England. Downton Abbey personified.

It would be hard to imagine a public figure more different from Donald Trump. Yet in a sense he is a Trump in toff’s clothing. He appeals to a section of his population that harbours deep resentment – for different reasons perhaps, but resentment nonetheless – against the established political order. Trump’s snake oil is the border wall, repatriating jobs, America First, with the undertone that a threatened majority, America’s whites, will regain their natural primacy in society. Rees-Mogg’s is taking back control, regaining sovereignty, reining in immigration and all the other nostrums of the Brexit faith that seeks to return his country to a proto-imperial nation of free-trading buccaneers.

Whereas Trump’s style is spittle-flecked and neck-bulging, our man’s act is designed to assuage the quiet desperation of the English. Polite, superbly articulated and laced with venom. Education masquerading as wisdom.

The upper classes, I suspect, don’t buy into Rees-Mogg’s young fogey shtick. Where ancestry is concerned, they know a johnny-come-lately when they see one. And besides, most genuine upper-class types are the shambolic heirs to falling-down country estates full of moth-eaten carpets and furniture ridden with woodworm. They survive by opening their houses to the plebs and selling an old master from time to time. Rees-Mogg, the wealthy co-owner of an investment fund, would not allow his castle to fall into such disrepair.

No, his catchment area is the middle classes. Since there is no such thing as a lower class any more (just as Britain’s trains no longer have a third class), his admirers aren’t limited to peppery colonels who run golf clubs. They also include the descendants of Alf Garnett (of Till Death Us Do Part fame) and others who used to be referred to as working-class Tories. Those who have not been tempted to join UKIP or the English Defence League, that is.

Imagine if he became Prime Minister. Unlikely, as his elderly admirers steadily die off, but anything is possible these days. But if it were to happen, it would most likely be after a car-crash Brexit. If we look five years ahead, what sort of Britain would he be presiding over? A nation whose economy has tanked. Perhaps not a nation at all, if Scotland peels off and Northern Ireland in desperation seeks unity with the South in some sort of federation that satisfies all but the most diehard Unionists.

One can hardly imagine a more appropriate Prime Minister of a chocolate box England, devoid of power and purpose, sustained by promises of future prosperity uttered in impeccable Queen’s English, supported by American hedge funds, Russian oligarchs and the Chinese state. A nation of zero-hours contractors, tourist bus drivers and marketers of nostalgia. One gigantic theme park.

It might not be that awful. We would still have our technologists working for Facebook and Google, our neurosurgeons in the employ of American healthcare providers and, if we’re lucky, we might still have a few outstanding universities sustained by a multitude of students from China and the Middle East.

We might also have one or two warships still afloat, and an army capable of quelling an insurrection in the Isle of Man while still having a few soldiers to spare for guard duties at Buckingham Palace.

The good news would be that we wouldn’t need much of an army, because we wouldn’t be able to afford our NATO dues. And besides, we would be immune from invasion because our Chinese, Russian and American owners would be keen to protect their investments against unnecessary conflict.

I jest, of course. Such an outcome would take ten years, not five. All this assumes that our decline is so gradual that we don’t notice it enough to elect a Labour government or, if we do, they are even more incompetent than the current incumbents. In 2028 Rees-Mogg would still be only fifty-nine, but most likely looking even more like a national monument than today.

I bear no ill will towards Jacob Rees Mogg, even though his political views, especially on Brexit, are in my opinion profoundly misguided. In fact I admire him for rising so far, although Eton undoubtedly helped him along the way, as it did clowns like Boris Johnson and David Cameron.  The House of Commons is full of grey people whom you wouldn’t notice if you were riding on the tube. He’s definitely not one of them – more like charcoal. He’s a character. His refusal to behave like a 21st Century demagogue screams authenticity, though in politics there’s a thin line between being true to yourself and turning your quirks into a personal brand.

But should he ever become Prime Minister I shall do one of two things. Either I shall move to New Zealand, which really does live in the 19th century, or I shall crowdfund the creation of a theme park called Moggland, the centrepiece of which will be an ancient house with coal fires, chamber pots and unplumbed bathtubs. I shall then await the hordes of Chinese visitors who will be desperate to partake in an authentic English experience. The services of a nanny will be extra.

The Wrinkly Whisperer may yet have his day, but I’m afraid I’m deaf to his murmuring.

From → Politics, UK

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