“Jacob is one of the new breed of serious students intent upon the maintenance of good old fashioned standards.” So read one column in a late 1980s copy of Cherwell, in which many of the current crop of big names at Westminster infamously and predictably feature in all their glory. I put this to Rees-Mogg as a opener, hoping to begin with the Jacob this University once knew. After all, rarely a moment passes these days without the Honourable Member for North East Somerset being splashed across the headlines on Europe. Where did it all begin?
“I am a Conservative,” he launches, “and Conservatives are in the business of preserving what is best about the present… and not changing for changing’s sake, so that would still be true.” Not exactly new terrain! In characteristic and historicised bluster, he assures me his trajectory to the centre of our politics is motivated by a desire to improve “the condition of the nation…in Disraelian terms.”
Rees-Mogg is undoubtedly and unapologetically as elite as it gets. Eton preceded Oxford, and investment management at Rothschild followed it. A backbencher since 2010, he now chairs the European Research Group, the main Tory organ of hard Brexit advocacy chipping away at the Government. To many, Rees-Mogg is the paradigm of the establishment, but at the same time he appears a maverick sniping at it on the main issue of our day. I ponder how he reflects on this contradiction.
“To some extent I know the establishment only too well, but perhaps because I know it well I know what’s wrong with it. I think the problem with the British establishment is that it has for too long thought that its main object was to manage decline.” This is recognisably Thatcherite in tone, those sympathetic might say admirably honest. “I think the Government’s negotiations have been much too much about [this] than about getting the Brexit prize. The excitement of politics is to make things better all the time, its looking for constant improvement.”
In the last weeks, EU leaders have again met to discuss the latest state Brexit negotiations. The border in Ireland remains unsolved as a flashpoint of the talks, haunting Mrs May. Just before we speak, Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group threw their weight behind a Canada-plus arrangement as an alternative to Chequers. The retort from Downing Street had predictably followed, insisting that no third party trade deal has ever reduced hard borders.
This is risible, insists Rees-Mogg. “To say no trade deal has ever reduced hard borders is simply untrue. The European Union is in essence a trade deal which is what it began with, which is why the EU has complete control over our trade policy at the moment. Whichever Downing Street spokesman said that should be sent off to Oxford to have a remedial history course, they might not make such silly comments.”
What about the claim that the stockpiling of medicines and a new food supplies minister is a sign of an impending cross-border trade disaster? Rees-Mogg offers a retort of his own: “It’s Project Fear on speed…this is all hysterical, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Amidst the political dogfighting and bravado that dominates Westminster, Rees-Mogg insists his Brexit can uphold the sovereignty of the nation. I wonder how this is possible given the apparent need for customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in any Canada style trade agreement. “The definitely would not happen,” Rees-Mogg claims, citing the precedents already applied by the EU on its other external borders. He simply adds, rhetorically: “We’re one country, the EU cannot be allowed to chop up the United Kingdom.”
Few would dispute that endlessly repetitive sloganeering across the spectrum has done little for the quality of the debate, other than supply ministers a veneer of conviction behind which they can hide. It seems the campaign for a Peoples’ Vote is starting to pierce through this, backed here now of course by Oxford SU. Activists amassed in London on the recent march for a Peoples’ Vote. There is of course no need to establish Rees-Mogg’s position on another vote, but what of his justification? Nothing is undemocratic, surely, about confirming public support on the precise details of the deal agreed. In any case wouldn’t it be better for advocates of Brexit to ratify the ideas they seem so confident about?
“Well what’s your question?” Rees-Mogg answers combatively, audibly irritated at this challenge. “You’re asking the question, you’ve got to specify, what type of referendum are you asking people to sign up to?”
After a to and fro as to what’s on the ballot paper, I insist its about keeping options open to the public. This receives little recognition. “People have voted to Leave, they’ve made that decision. They made that decision two years ago.”
“Can we then have another vote a year later to decide whether we are going to stay in the European Union? Make it the best of three! What you’re saying is that the people who lost want us to keep on voting until they win, and then they want to stop voting. My answer to that is this is simply an abuse of the democratic process…the only people who want a second vote are people who lost the first time round, that don’t accept the democratic decision that was made in 2016.”
We become so engrossed in the back and forth on Europe that we almost lose sight of my opening enquiry into Rees-Mogg’s university days. I return to his mantra of “not changing for changing’s sake.” ‘Change’, of course, is among the first words off the lips of many MPs when the topic of Oxford rears its head. After all, there are more students from Westminster School than there are black students in last year’s intake. The top twelve independent schools outnumber all state comps. I wonder whether Rees-Mogg sees this as a ‘social apartheid’, like his colleague David Lammy MP.
“No, I don’t agree with that. I think that Oxford exists to have a complete focus on academic excellence…you see it across the country with people being told they shouldn’t apply to Oxford…that’s wrong and Oxford is right to get out and about.”
This is perfectly acceptable in theory, but in practice resources for teachers and students have been stretched across the country since at least the start of the decade. One can hardly argue that there is an equality of opportunity nationwide. Surely, we’ll unfairly miss some of the best and brightest, and restrict our University’s diversity and inclusion? I put the case for more lenient entry standards for those from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.
“That is the wrong approach, that is a desperately condescending approach,” he shoots back, the most animated in our discussion so far. “The issue for Oxford is to increase the numbers applying from diverse backgrounds rather than trying to fill quotas which would damage the academic excellence of Oxford, as if it were just a quota machine.”
It’s clear Rees-Mogg cares about this place and its traditions. After all, he is still the Honorary President of OUCA, in the news of late for the controversy surrounding banning the Bullingdon Club. He also sits as a Trustee of the Oxford Union’s parent body, having been Librarian. Once a keen student politician, Rees-Mogg’s stand on free speech seems especially pertinent. So often the lightening rod for criticism of students, I wonder how this noted debater will react when I explain some in Oxford will likely forward an argument that to no-platform him and his views would the right step.
“That is the beginnings of a totalitarian regime. Not only are they threatening free speech which is a good thing in an academic setting, but they’re also threading the fundamentals of the Constitution.” With such dramatic rhetoric its clear Rees-Mogg joins the choirs of onlookers who cry ‘crisis’ and ‘fiasco’ at student debate. He adds: “It always used to be that there used to be a very strong tradition of defending free speech on the Left.”
This seems the appropriate moment to bring up the controversial social views Rees-Mogg has himself shared with television and student audiences across the country. There seems a disconnect between his outwardly polite and affable nature, and his positions on gay marriage and abortion that many find abhorrent. To the challenge that such views are homophobic and misogynistic, he shoots back: “I think that’s simply wrong. Whenever people resort to abuse in terms of an argument, they have lost the argument.
“They need to put counter argument that deal with the substance of what is being said. The issue with abortion is that there are two lives and you have to consider both lives…life is being ended and that is not something that can simply be ignored. If you look at opinion polling, you seem to see that more women have concerns over abortion than men, whatever it is it’s not an anti-women view.”
Whilst many of us might find Rees-Mogg’s views unappetising, it’s clear he won’t be retreating from view any time soon. We cannot ignore his viewpoints. I wrap things up wondering what optimistic message he can offer to young people on our current political state. Perhaps this will initiate some kind of common ground?
“For young people this must surely be the most exciting opportunity because who would you rather decide who leads your life: you or somebody else? Surely you want to decide how your own life is led? We’ll do it better than anyone else will do it for you…”
This of course remains to be seen. As our and our country’s future is deliberated for us away from view, I hope Rees-Mogg pauses to consider the strength of feeling among most young people; that the step we’re about to take is both wrong and deeply upsetting. I really do.