Only a lame leg to stand on.

William Rees-Mogg
HarperPress, 352pp, £30

William Rees-Mogg was editor of the Times from 1967 to 1981 in a world very different from our own. The year before he became editor, his immediate predecessor, Sir William Haley, had taken the bold step of putting news on the front page. Previously it had contained only personal advertisements. Rees-Mogg went even further, ending the custom of journalistic anonymity and introducing personal bylines. "For a journalist," as Rees-Mogg understood, "his name is his career."

Rees-Mogg learned early on in life, as head of school at Charterhouse, that he was good at exercising authority. Admittedly, the qualities of deference and conformity normally required to achieve the post of head prefect often tell against success in later life. That, however, was not to be the case with Rees-Mogg. After editing the Times, he became vice-chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, chairman of the Arts Council and the first chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. Two of these three positions were offered to him over lunch: no nonsense in those days about having to apply for posts on nominated bodies, or adopting Nolan principles of standards in public life.

Rees-Mogg was not, however, universally admired as a schoolboy. A Charterhouse contemporary of his, the writer Simon Raven, satirised him in his Alms for Oblivion novel sequence as Somerset Lloyd-James (not Lloyd Jones, as Rees-Mogg irritatingly writes) - an ambitious schemer whose ostentatious rectitude and religious fervour are shown by his unmentionable sexual practices to be largely humbug. I hardly know Rees-Mogg, but I have no doubt that his private life is beyond reproach and that he is, as Oscar Wilde would have said, without a single redeeming private vice. He certainly possesses great public virtues, and these were displayed in his editorship of the Times. He represents the old British establishment at its best, during its Indian summer.

These memoirs are the finely written record of an honourable public career, but they are more than that: they reveal more perhaps than the author intends. Rees-Mogg is a profoundly symbolic figure, standing as he did at the point of transition between one type of Conservatism and another - or, rather, a transition that was to replace the elegant and civilised Whiggery to which he continues to adhere with the values of an unrestrained and philistine commercialism.

The public perception of Rees-Mogg has been that of an innocent and somewhat unworldly bibliophile who likes nothing better than to potter about among his 18th-century books in his Somerset library. Private Eye has seen him as a holy fool, Mystic Mogg, whose predictions are always wrong. He himself feels that his "critics might think that I have made a living out of playing Polonius on the public stage. I am particularly aware of his inability to see what a comic character he was making of himself."

Yet all this is quite wrong. Rees-Mogg has indeed made wrong predictions, though hardly more often than others who pontificate regularly on public affairs. Perhaps he is somewhat less cautious in making them than the rest of us. He would probably not have been successful in politics, because there is nothing of the trimmer in his make-up.

He is as strenuous on the right side as on the wrong - a pro-European Tory wet in the 1960s, a supporter of realignment in the early 1970s, but a monetarist later in the decade and a Eurosceptic in the 1980s. The shifts in Rees-Mogg's opinions, and the way in which they were faithfully reflected in Times leaders, leave open the question of whether the Times shaped opinion, expressed it, or remained a paper written by members of one section of an elite for the edification of other members of that same elite.

Rees-Mogg sought to "modernise" the Times. By the end of his editorship, however, the distinctive qualities that had made it a paper of weight and authority had gone. The Thunderer had become just another broadsheet, as it still is. Like those other attempts to modernise institutions in the 1960s and 1970s - the new industrial conglomerations, the high-rise blocks of flats, the inner-city ring roads and the Heath-Walker reorganisation of local government - the modernisation of the Times represented a surrender to commercialism which failed even on its own terms. By 1980, the only way to maintain the paper as a going concern was to sell it to Rupert Murdoch.

Rees-Mogg was now a Thatcherite, and in 1982 Paul Channon, the then arts minister, asked him to take on the chairmanship of the Arts Council. His qualifications for the post were obscure. He admits that his wife had "a much better ear for music than I have". His interest in painting seems confined to portraits of his 18th-century heroes - John Locke, Pitt the Elder and Alexander Pope - and to pictures with a theological message. He does savour books, especially rare first editions, but makes the astonishing confession that "I have seldom read books through. I dip, I skim, I use the index. I am not a good reader from the beginning to the end, except for occasional novels." Nonetheless, he had more respect for the arts than did his patron Margaret Thatcher, who seems to have believed that their value lies in the contribution they make to the balance of payments and to British diplomacy, regarding them as being, in Rees-Mogg's words, "partly a matter of encouraging tourism", but "even more one of diplomatic prestige".

It is difficult to avoid contrasting Rees-Mogg with Haley. Unlike Rees-Mogg, Haley was not a product of Charterhouse and Balliol, but left school at 16 to begin his career as a wireless telegraph operator on a tramp ship. Yet he prided himself on reading three Victorian novels a week, and for many years contributed a regular column to the Times under the byline Oliver Edwards, which showed a wide and extensive knowledge of literature. He at least had found the time to read books right through.Towards the end of his life, Gladstone declared that the Conservatives of his youth had stood on one good leg, a reverence for history and tradition, and one lame leg, class interest. By the 1880s, so he believed, the reverence for history and tradition had gone, and only class interest remained. During the time when Rees-Mogg was at the centre of events, the values of the older Conservatism were being displaced by a commercialism and philistinism that he must have found repugnant.

The blurb to Memoirs is correct to describe Rees-Mogg as a pivotal figure. He was one of the instruments of the transition from the old Conservatism to the new, a harbinger of Thatcherism - a form of Conservatism that rested on one lame leg, commercial self-interest, and destroyed the values of the establishment to which Rees-Mogg belonged. This book charts the life of a member of an extinct species. l

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College, London. His books include "The Coalition and the Constitution" (Hart Publishing, £20)