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Jacob’s Ladder:
The Unauthorised Biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg

by michael ashcroft
biteback, 352 pages, £20

On February 2, 2018, seven members of a group called Bristol Antifascists assembled outside a lecture hall at the University of the West of England in Bristol. They donned balaclavas or dark glasses, according to taste, and entered through the double doors at the back of the hall. “No platform for homophobes!” they shouted. “No platform for sexists!” While the audience looked embarrassed or got out their phones, the target of these insults strode up the steps of the lecture hall to greet the intruders. Jacob Rees-Mogg looked, as he often does, like a man trying to be reasonable in the middle of a maelstrom. As the protesters jabbed their fingers at him and continued to shout, the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset listened politely, his six-foot-two frame leaning gently toward them, and made his own suggestions—sadly inaudible on the video of the event. After a brief exchange, most of the “Antifascists” gave up and retreated through the double doors. But one carried on yelling, until another audience member approached and threw an unsuccessful punch. Whereupon Rees-Mogg jumped between them and, for once, raised his voice. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he cried out to the room, which by now was on its feet. “Please calm down!”

Asked by a reporter afterward whether he had felt in danger, Rees-Mogg smiled and shook his head. “They’re British,” he explained. “They disapprove of everything I stand for, but they’re good, honest British citizens. They weren’t going to hit me.” It was a typical statement, almost ludicrous in its politeness. But Rees-Mogg has always seemed immune to ridicule: With his period-­drama vowels, his old-fashioned spectacles and haircut, and what one interviewer called his “faultless ancien régime courtesy,” he represents a species of upper-class Englishman previously rumored to be extinct. He also happens to be the best-known Catholic in British public life, and his career exemplifies the successes and failures of Christian witness in contemporary British politics.

Since becoming a Member of ­Parliament in 2010, ­Rees-Mogg has emerged, as Michael ­Ashcroft puts it in his well-researched biography, as “one of the best-known public figures, not just one of the highest-profile politicians, in Britain.” That is thanks, in part, to the all-consuming Brexit debate: Since 2016, Rees-Mogg has emerged as a semi-official leader for those Conservative MPs who want the sharpest possible break with the E.U. But his popularity, the phenomenon known as “Moggmania,” owes less to ­Rees-Mogg’s politics than to his character: his eccentricities, his ­obvious love of the English language, his adherence to his principles, and his faith in human decency. Even when his opponents are yelling in his face, Rees-Mogg just wants to have a chat with them.

The trouble with having faith in human decency is that there are some indecent characters out there. In 2012, Rees-Mogg told parliament that the free market helps to protect workers: “Companies that treat their employees well,” he explained, “tend to be more profitable and successful.” Rees-Mogg pointed to Hon Hai, the gigantic manufacturing firm that supplies companies such as Apple and Amazon. Hon Hai, Rees-Mogg enthused, “provides an almost governmental style of welfare” for its workers, “because it is in its own interests to do so.”

Anyone hearing this panegyric and rushing to find out how tenderly Hon Hai treats its employees would have discovered that in 2010, thirteen workers at its Chinese factories had committed suicide. That prompted an inquiry wherein twenty universities interviewed 1,800 employees. The resulting report described Hon Hai as a “labor camp” that regularly broke safety and overtime laws; 13 percent of interviewees said they had fainted on the assembly line. Two years later, one hundred fifty workers stood on a ledge threatening mass suicide unless Hon Hai’s management did something about working conditions. An audit and various reforms followed; nevertheless, last year a nine-month probe by China Labor Watch concluded that huge profits were being made from “workers who labor in appalling working conditions and have no choice but to work excessive overtime hours to sustain a livelihood.”

To Rees-Mogg’s critics, he is a privileged man who defends the strong against the weak. And there is no denying that he was born to the Establishment: The son of the editor of the London Times, Rees-Mogg was educated at Eton and Oxford. He was playing the stock market from an early age and, as Ashcroft shows, with an unnerving single-mindedness. Thanks to his investment career and his wife’s inherited fortune, the Rees-Moggs’ combined wealth is conservatively estimated at £70 million.

Yet to caricature Rees-Mogg as a callous apologist for the rich and powerful would be to ignore at least one glaring fact. While the most vulnerable people in Britain, more than five hundred and fifty of them every day, are being destroyed by pills, forceps, and vacuum machines, almost the entire political class keeps silent. Rees-Mogg does not. “I’m completely opposed to abortion,” he told an interviewer in 2017 on a much-watched breakfast TV program. In all circumstances? “Yes I am.” Even in cases of rape? “I’m afraid so. Life is sacrosanct and begins at the point of conception and I think it is wrong.” It was Rees-Mogg’s finest hour. In the same interview he opposed same-sex marriage, explaining that for him, “The teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals is authoritative.” At the risk of his political advancement, Rees-Mogg said without ambiguity that he believes what the Church asks him to believe.

The interview is, however, unrepresentative of Rees-Mogg’s political career. The defenses of marriage and the family, of the unborn child, and of the freedom to hold Catholic beliefs have been his occasional hobbies rather than his frequent themes. This is not for lack of opportunity. Since the Conservatives took office in 2010, they have introduced same-sex marriage; reformed the welfare system to take away incentives for marriage, and to penalize poorer couples who have more than two children; smoothed the path to divorce; and used money and power abroad to support gay marriage and abortion. This year, the party has expanded the reach of sex education: When parents at one school protested against teaching seven-year-olds about transgender identity, government ministers expressed sympathy with the school, not with the parents. The Conservatives’ latest project has been to force abortion and same-sex marriage on Northern Ireland. How can Rees-Mogg survive in such a party? Simply put, because none of these matters affect his chief political mission. He is, almost supremely among modern British politicians, a champion of the deregulated marketplace.

Rees-Mogg is, for instance, wary of anti-lobbying rules, which he thinks should be “as minimalist as possible.” He is skeptical about regulating tobacco packaging, which would involve “taking away a freedom from the British people.” He declares himself against energy subsidies, preferring “a proper free market.” Nor should the government bail out bankrupt companies to whom it has outsourced public services, as “the market will sort it out.” In 2013 it was proposed, as a partial solution to Britain’s housing crisis, that landlords should be registered and required to make written agreements with tenants. Rees-Mogg declared himself “fundamentally opposed” to the bill—not just on practical grounds, but because it was “an attack on the rights of property and on the free market.” In any case, “competition is a much better curer of ills than state regulation.” In his suspicion of the state, Rees-Mogg is an heir of the prime minister he refers to as “the great, almost divine ­Margaret Thatcher.” Decades ago, one of his teachers wrote in a school report: “Even though I’m a great Thatcherite, Rees-Mogg seems to be a particularly dogmatic one.” The child is father of the man.

At heart, Rees-Mogg is an individualist. The “great virtue of Toryism,” he has said, “is focusing on the individual.” His father William, whom Rees-Mogg calls his greatest professional influence, once co-wrote a tract titled The Sovereign Individual. It predicts that “the brightest, most successful and ambitious” individuals will one day have their abilities “unleashed, freed from . . . the oppression of government.” The younger Rees-Mogg does not go that far; nevertheless, he suggests that “Conservatives . . . basically believe that people should make decisions over their own lives, that they should be as free as possible to do that.” 

It is interesting to compare Rees-Mogg with the Conservative MP Christopher Hollis (1902–1977), like Rees-Mogg a product of Eton and Oxford and an old-­fashioned, ­cricket-loving, deeply patriotic Somerset man. For Hollis, the natural role of the Tory party was to battle against wealthy vested interests—“nor indeed was there any dispute about that,” he once wrote, “until in this century the Conservative party was invaded by the battalions of big business.” Hollis represented a strain of anti-capitalist English Catholicism which peaked in the first half of the twentieth ­century. Thus, G. K. ­Chesterton argued that “what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism,” while Christopher Dawson described it as the Church’s most dangerous enemy.

For these writers, free-market capitalism had brought about the mistreatment of the poor; the increased power of the elite to reshape family life; the chaos of competition that disturbed the ordinary workings of a healthy society; and the exclusion of Christian moral principles from the marketplace, which rapidly led to their exclusion everywhere else. One tragedy of English history was that the nation’s institutions had done so much to develop capitalism at home and abroad. “The gentlemen of England,” Hollis wrote, were “in the heyday of their power the trickiest and most rapacious class ever known among men.” Such a view came especially easily to Catholics, who could blame the rise of capitalism on the individualism fostered by the Reformation.

For Rees-Mogg, by contrast, English history is one long success story. You might expect a Catholic to deplore Henry VIII’s 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals, a decisive moment in the severing of the English Church from Rome. Yet for Rees-Mogg, it was a splendid example of national independence: “We had the confidence to be a nation standing on our own two feet.”

Similarly, Rees-Mogg has described the nineteenth century as “one of the finest ages in British history, when most employers were benevolent, kindly, good and not out of a ­Dickens novel.” Such a statement is impossible to prove or disprove. It tells us less about the nineteenth century than about the mind of ­Jacob Rees-Mogg and its impermeable belief that the world is a decent place where people are essentially nice to each other. No doubt this kindly view stems partly from Rees-Mogg’s own evident niceness. I have never met Rees-Mogg, but the London Catholic world is small enough that you hear stories, and I can say this: If the test of kindness is doing good to those who can’t possibly repay you, then he is an unusually kind man. In public life, too, he is a serial turner of the other cheek. Told by a protester at the Tory party conference to “F*** off and die,” Rees-Mogg replied: “And if I do, will you please pray for my ­immortal soul?”

But just as he is reluctant to think ill of his fellow man, so Rees-Mogg has trouble seeing any problems with the global economic system. In 2017, it was reported that the investment firm he co-founded, Somerset Capital Management, had a £5 million stake in an Indonesian firm that makes ulcer pills. These pills have an abortifacient effect, in a country where there are around two million illegal abortions a year. Rees-Mogg explained that he didn’t make investment decisions, that he profited from this stake only in “a roundabout way,” and that “the world is not always what you want it to be.” Might there not be a fundamental sickness in a system that deals death at one end and tasty profits at the other, and in which nothing seems to be anybody’s direct responsibility? The question seemed not to have crossed his mind.

In May, Rees-Mogg published his first book, a collection of biographical essays titled The Victorians. The reviews were, as the author sportingly acknowledged, terrible. Even those critics who had no political animus against Rees-Mogg were dismayed by the book’s ungainly prose and its complacent tone. Rees-Mogg commends the Victorians for their British virtues of “fair play, etiquette and gentlemanly behaviour.” Unlike our “tiresomely censorious” age, he says, the Victorians ­celebrated business success and championed free trade. They also built an empire, which Rees-Mogg praised in terms most reviewers found repellent.

But the critics overlooked the book’s internal tensions. Some of the figures Rees-Mogg admires are clearly not Rees-Moggians. There are Disraeli and the older Peel, who used the power of the state to regulate the market in labor and housing. There is General Napier, a critic of “capitalist modernity” (Rees-Mogg’s phrase) who described the British presence in India as a bloodthirsty campaign with no motive other than greed. And there is the architect Pugin, who yearned for a Catholic social order in which the poor would be supported in body and soul rather than crammed into the nightmarish cities of nineteenth-century industrial Britain. Rees-Mogg hints that all these figures were in some way impractical dreamers, but he writes of them with a note of sympathy. It almost makes you wonder whether we could one day see the emergence of Jacob ­Rees-Mogg the radical. Stranger things have happened in the lives of men of prayer.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at the Catholic Herald.

Photo by Chris McAndrew via Creative Commons