By Conor Holohan
Jacob Rees-Mogg has for some time been a darling of the traditional, Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. His grandiose oratory style and knowledge of the British constitution is lauded by MPs and activists alike. However his appeal is not exclusive to the Brexit-backing traditionalists of the Tory Party. Since the General Election, his popularity among conservative-minded people, and particularly the young, has risen even more sharply than it already had been due to his prominent role in the leave campaign and near-cultish status among Conservative activists. His recent entry into the world of social media made for many column inches on the potential popularity he may be able to harness, and the bookies’ odds on Rees-Mogg becoming the next Conservative Party leader descended more and more by the week.
One public affairs issue always associated with the name Jacob Rees-Mogg is the British exit from the European Union. Amid much back and forth among the cabinet over possible transitional arrangements, Jacob is pragmatic within certain boundaries: ‘If, by the end of March 2019, we are no longer subject to the European Court of Justice, we have control of our borders and we set our own regulations under UK law rather than the regulations that come from the Single Market….then if we say that for a period we will carry on allowing people from the EU to come in freely – but they won’t necessarily be entitled to settle – that doesn’t matter. If on the other hand what we’re saying is that we haven’t really left and that we’re still subject to the European Court, we’re still following the regulations and free movement as a right, rather than that we’re allowing people to come in whilst we get the border force properly organised, then that’s clearly a breach of trust with the referendum.’
Since the referendum result of June 23rd 2016, the debate over ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ Brexit has been constant, with many heavyweight remain figures arguing that a lighter approach to Brexit is possible, which would include the UK remaining as a member of the Single Market and under the jurisdiction of EU courts. Mr Rees-Mogg is not seduced by this position: ‘There isn’t hard or soft Brexit: You’re either in the European Union or you’re out. The people who talk about a soft Brexit are people who have always rejected the result, never wanted us to leave in the first place and are rehashing all their old arguments to say why it’s important that we stay in the European Union. Soft Brexit means not leaving.’
There are prominent media and political figures who have stipulated that those who voted to exit the European Union were insufficiently informed and didn’t know what they were voting for. Jacob Rees-Mogg is quick to refute that assertion: ‘I think that’s a comment made by people who are anti-democratic. People who think that the clever elite know better than the British people, and I fundamentally reject that analysis which undermines all democracy.
‘If you take that argument to its logical conclusion, you would say that people should only be allowed to vote once they had taken an exam showing that they are fully informed and able to vote. Actually, what we do in our country and in other democracies is trust the people to make decisions. Many people had thought about the European Union for years if not decades. They thought about it very carefully and they decided either to stay or to leave.
‘The debate was followed with great attention. I did a lot of public speaking during the debate and the halls that I went to were full in a way that they aren’t for General Elections. There was considerable public engagement. The whole basis of democracy is that the vote is valid and that a few people who think they know best are not able to run the country. That isn’t a democracy, it’s an oligarchy, and I reject the oligarchs.’
In Cardiff Bay the Welsh Government have been gloomy about the constitutional and economic implications of Brexit, with the First Minister Carwyn Jones continuing to advocate Single Market membership for the United Kingdom after the point of leaving the EU. ‘It’s not a devolved matter. It’s a United Kingdom-wide matter, and the people of Wales voted to leave. What is happening is the people who campaigned against leaving –the remain group- in some cases, though only a minority to be fair, are trying to reject that result and they’re carrying on with the same arguments.
‘The vote to establish the Welsh Assembly was passed with a few thousand votes more in favour than against [6,721 votes separating “yes” and “no”] and yet that was then the established will of the Welsh people. It’s what has been implemented – quite rightly – and people who opposed the establishment of the Welsh Assembly have not spent all their time saying “people didn’t know enough. It was only a small majority. It should be reversed”. Democrats ought to accept the result, and that includes the leader of the Welsh Assembly.’
Since June the 8th the subject of austerity and conservative-minded fiscal policy has been at the centre of some rather bitter cabinet squabbling. Many Conservative MPs have contended that in order for the party to counteract the cult of Jeremy Corbyn, they must drop austerity and shift economically leftwards. Amid arguments in the top tiers of the government over public sector pay, there was a considerable amount of leaking of cabinet discussions to the press by some ministers, aimed at portraying the Chancellor Phillip Hammond as uncaring and tight-fisted for wanting to stay on track with austerity. However, the approach of dropping fiscal responsibility, dubbed ‘Torbynism’ by some commentators, is not something Jacob Rees-Mogg wishes to pursue. ‘If the Conservative Party became the Labour Party it would not win more votes. If people wanted the Labour Party, they would vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Thinking that we can copy them is probably not a successful strategy.
‘Austerity is not, on its own, enough. What the Conservative Party needs to do is to explain why a Conservative economic approach increases peoples’ standard of living. I don’t think we’ve been good at explaining that. We’ve been very good at explaining the need for austerity, but not good at explaining how that helps the economy grow.
‘We should be explaining why the private sector, individuals particularly, spend money better than the government does. You get more economic growth if people keep more of their own money and are able to spend it on what they want rather than what governments think they want, so there’s a very strong argument for low taxation.
‘There’s a further strong argument for low taxation, which you’ve seen very clearly with corporation tax, which is that lower rates raise more money. So you get economic growth, more money for public services and you ensure that companies and individuals have more money in their pocket to invest or to spend. Spending for individuals is profits for companies, which is then profits for individuals back again because everything in the end comes back to people – corporations are merely a collective of people. If we start putting those sorts of arguments then we can get away from austerity to economic growth. Yes, you have to live within your means, but living within your means within a growing economy is much easier than living within your means in a static economy.’
Jacob studied history at Oxford University, and is sceptical of the culture of censorship that has come to inhabit many universities across the West. ‘It’s very worrying. Free speech is very important and free speech includes the right to offend, but not to intimidate or to propose violence. There are clear constraints on free speech; incitement to violence is illegal, incitement to hatred is illegal. That is sensible, but preventing debate of current issues seems to me to be going too far.
‘I think part of the virtue of universities is that ideas should flourish and then fade. You want discussion; it’s good for the nation as a whole that people should discuss ideas, debate them and work through which ones are good and which ones are bad, and they need to do that in a very free spirit. People can’t be unduly wrapped in cotton wool.
‘I’ve never quite understood what the safe spaces policy is supposed to be. If it is there to stop incitement to violence, that should be stopped anyway. If it is there because people are too precious to involve themselves in debate, they should look to themselves rather than to others.’
If there is one way to momentarily trip Mr Rees-Mogg up on his eloquent speaking it is to force him out of his natural modesty. I ask him what he thinks it might be about him that is capturing the minds of so many politically-minded young people recently. ‘It’s very hard to comment on one’s own um…appeal or otherwise.’ You can see the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset is slightly out of his comfort zone here, a rare sight indeed. ‘I don’t know.’ After a pause he quickly finds his feet; ‘It may be partly that I don’t sit here thinking that you are a young person and therefore I must express certain views, which I think is desperately condescending.
‘I don’t like the categorisation of electors. I think there are good Conservative principles which are in their nature popular because they work, and they work for the old, the middle aged and the young. But you have to appeal to individuals, not a mass of people who all think the same thing, because we all think very differently.’
One thing is certain, and that is that Jacob is completely immune from ideological fashion. Whatever charges his political adversaries may wish bring against him, the charge being a popularity hunter is not one which would stick. ‘Is the purpose of politics to be in office or is the purpose of politics ideas that will make the country more successful? I think it’s the latter. I think that if you are a socialist, and you think that that is also popular, if that is right, but I think those ideas are nonsense, what benefit is there for me to be in office to implement things that I think are nonsense? It’s much better to make the argument for what you believe in; that seems to me to be the point of politics. Office is secondary to that.’