In this Catholic Universe EXCLUSIVE, Michael Winterbottom speaks to the Conservative MP for North East Somerset and ardent Brexit supporter, Jacob Rees-Mogg
Jacob Rees-Mogg holds no ministerial post yet he is regarded as one of the, if not the, leading players when it comes to the UK’s current debate on Europe, and it is his voice that is most frequently heard arguing against any watering down of Brexit. He is also seriously spoken of as a potential replacement for Theresa May as prime minister – a suggestion he usually dismisses out of hand.
What he does embrace is a description of him as an original and undiluted Conservative. He is the darling of constituency associations across the UK, and one of the few politicians of either side who can pack out a debating hall. A former banker and founder of an asset management company, he is also a devout Catholic who famously said on gay marriage and abortion that he takes his whip from “the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whip’s Office.”
He comes from a long established Somerset family, which included at least one Anglican clergyman. His Catholicism, he says, comes from his grandmother – “my father’s mother was Irish American.” His father, former editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg, “was brought up Catholic, my mother is an Anglican but the children were all brought up as Catholics.” His own childhood was not particularly religious “other than going to Mass every Sunday.”
It is obvious, however, that his faith is central to his life and as he explained, is “an underpinning to everything else. I think it gives important support for everything one is doing. Political activity is different from religious activity, so it’s an underpinning. The Gospel on Sunday, actually in the Extraordinary form, was about loving your neighbour and that is obviously a very important foundation stone of anybody’s religious life but is obviously something that must be important in political life as well and perhaps an understanding of something of the equal value of every soul… so it is an important influence in public life.”
I put it to Mr Rees-Mogg that although we are told a growing proportion of the country’s population define themselves as non-religious, it is apparent that religion still remains a litmus test for politicians. It’s something Liberal leader Tim Farron discovered when he tried to square his Christian beliefs with his politics and fell foul of public opinion because of his views on gay marriage.
Rees-Mogg, however, feels that the country still has a “Christian underpinning to it… there is, after all, still an Established Church and our culture has inevitably been strongly influenced by our Christian heritage and that’s something true about the UK and other countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand, that there is a Christian heritage that’s part of the history of the nation; even if fewer people now have a clearly defined belief there still seems to be quite a strong belief in the divine even if it is not specifically enunciated as a Christian belief.”
His own experiences vis a vis the Tim Farron episode is very different and he says he has experienced “no problems” in airing his views. Indeed, on the contrary,”people ask me questions and I do my best to answer them, and they form opinions of politicians on the information that they have, but no, I have not found myself under any pressure to change my views.” Rather, Farron’s problems lay within the Liberal Party itself: “Actually, I think that it is more to do with the Liberal Party than it is to do with Christianity. The Liberal Party is simply very illiberal and if you think of Lord David Alton, a very distinguished Catholic, he found the Liberal Party a party he could no longer remain in because of its intolerance of Christian views and that goes back quite a long time… so no, I think the Conservative Party is more liberal in this respect.”
The Conservative Party is, he added, “the most religiously tolerant party of people with faith. The Labour Party has a strong Christian heritage – Catholic in certain parts – and that has made it more tolerant of religious views, though not universally.”
When it comes to disputes, however, one topic dwarfs all others: Brexit. The anger and vitriol displayed by the losing side after the Referendum campaign is at a level seldom seen in domestic politics and I asked Mr Rees-Mogg if this had surprised him.
He explained that he thinks it is actually something that, “goes in cycles” and that, “if we go back to the 1980s the political debate was quite fiercely conducted and we are back to a period like that, having had an interim period when the parties seemed to be quite close together and there wasn’t a lot of political excitement.
“One thing that does interest me about people who backed Remain it is that they didn’t seem to mind very much before the Referendum, they only seemed to get wound up once they had lost. One wonders if they had campaigned more spiritedly during the Referendum, would that have had an influence, but they assumed they were going to win and could thus sit back and that is why they were so shocked about the result and have become so aggressive about it since.”
His unashamed and uncompromising advocacy of the benefits of capitalism naturally make Jacob Rees-Mogg a target for the left, who love to portray him as the bloated plutocrat advocating a policy that does not care for the poor, old or disadvantaged but instead takes from them in order to help the rich in society.
Not surprisingly Rees-Mogg strongly refutes this and rides to the defence of the capitalist system: “I think that the free market helps everybody to be better off. Look at the Brexit case and you look at the free market in relation to tariffs; the highest levels of tariffs are on food, clothing and footwear which hit the least well off in our community the most. So, the socialist approach, the protectionist approach, hits the least well off, while the Conservative free market approach would reduce their cost of living and improve their standard of living, so in a very simple example the Conservative approach helps the least well off.
“If you look at benefit changes the key aspect of the Universal Credit is that work always pays and everyone knows that the best way out of poverty is into work, so if you get people into work in the first place or back into work, then their chances of escaping poverty increase very dramatically. I’m not saying there haven’t been problems with Universal Credit and its very important that they are put right, but the basic underlying principle is one that is devoted to helping people to get out of poverty.”
Boris Johnson has recently called for a campaign of free speech to take on what he calls, “the professionally offended.” People, he says, are now terrified of speaking out of turn or of causing offence or, even worse, of not reacting in the politically correct way when something has been done or said that is deemed offensive.
I was interested to know what Mr Rees-Mogg thought of Boris’ call. He began by explaining how interesting he found it that, “the left particularly believes only half-heartedly in freedom of speech, that it wants people to conform to certain views that it holds and is very suspicious of people who express other views. I think you have been seeing this at universities. I went to speak at Bristol University earlier in the year after there had been a disturbance at a previous event that I had done. The university provided security and then charged the student group who had invited me £500. If students get charged £500, then they can’t afford to put on the events and free speech becomes expensive and won’t take place. Bristol University in particular parrots a vague belief in freedom of speech but actually doesn’t really support it when it’s necessary. So I think Boris’ point is right and that places of higher education have a particular responsibility to promote and support free speech because that is how you develop thinking.”
This is clearly something that Rees-Mogg is passionate about: “Freedom of speech is not absolute, it is not legal to shout fire in a crowded theatre when there isn’t a fire, nor can it be legal to incite people to commit crimes, but freedom of speech does allow people to say stupid things because the stupidity is in the eye of the beholder.”
In the rough and sometimes vicious world of politics, even Jacob Rees-Mogg’s detractors would agree that he is never less than courteous and his impeccable manners remain at all times firmly in place. I asked him if this came naturally or whether it was an acquired skill? Self deprecating as ever he admitted it was natural to him adding, “… I think if you listen to your opponent’s argument and respond calmly you have a better chance of getting your point across than if you get frightfully het up.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a family man to his fingertips and I asked him how he balanced a life as busy and a workload as heavy as his with his family life. “It’s a question of balance,” he told me, “we arrange our lives so that the family and I are always in the same place, so we go up and down to Somerset every weekend pretty much like clockwork. I bring the schoolchildren up on Sunday night and Helena takes them all down on Fridays, and so, even if I am just popping in for five minutes before going out to dinner, I see the children most days, if only briefly. Weekends offer more time and at the moment they are still young enough to be willing to come with me to some of the events that I do, which is fun. It’s lovely to have them with me in the constituency and they are also my secret weapon; nobody refuses a leaflet from a six-year-old.”
No interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg would be complete without a mention of cricket and it has been reported recently that his lookalike eldest son Peter, 10, is as keen on politics and cricket as is his father. I asked Rees-Mogg senior at what age he had first realised it was politics that were his future. “O gosh, if I’d have been good enough I would have loved to be a cricketer but I was never good enough. Peter’s a good deal better than I was, and is very enthusiastic and would certainly be keen to do it but you can never tell with 10 year olds really. I’ve always loved cricket but as I said, I’ve never been any good at actually playing the game. I’m an armchair cricketer.
“I knew that I was interested in politics from an early age and it was very much what the family conversations were about, but its hard to say at what age I knew it was specifically what I wanted to do. Certainly at school and at university I was very interested in politics and active in political opportunities that came my way.”
In a final message to The Catholic Universe he urged readers not to be despondent about secular media claims about the decline of religion. Rather, they should remember that: “People might not always identify with a particular religion as much any more but people shouldn’t lose hope. Faith remains very important to a very large number of people and remains one of the bedrocks of our society. People should not be too put off by what opinion polls say about it.”
Photo: Jacob with his wife, Helena, and his six children.
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