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Jacob Rees-Mogg’s horrible history

The Tory MP’s celebration of the Victorian age is plodding, laborious, humourless and barely readable.
 

In this book, the leading Conservative Party backbench MP and Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg celebrates the Victorian age as a “period of moral certainty, of success”, and, above all, an age of faith. “Sadly,” however, he laments, “society these days… has so little faith in anything.” We live in an age of “cynicism and decline”, of “moral relativism”, our faith in our country undermined by a belief that “all we can do is manage decline”. What we need is to recover the Victorians’ self-confidence and moral authority. To say that this is a selective reading of Victorian attitudes would be an understatement of huge proportions. You only have to read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” to realise that doubt, anxiety and pessimism about the future were just as prevalent.

Much of the blame for what Rees-Mogg sees as our current disdain for the Victorians he lays at the feet of Lytton Strachey, who is denounced in pretty well every chapter for the “sour, long, withdrawing whine” of the debunking biographies in his book Eminent Victorians; his “sneers”, his “horrible and selfish genius”, his “unfairness” and the “disagreeable” nature of his “jeering”. I doubt whether Strachey is much read these days, but Rees-Mogg’s diatribes will, one hopes, send readers rushing to purchase Eminent Victorians and may perhaps lead to something of a revival.

Confounding such scepticism, the Victorians, Rees-Mogg declares, can show us how to recover our belief in ourselves. “The British today have even more opportunity than the Victorians did to be successful,” but are, he writes, paralysed by “the forces of stagnation, trepidation and hesitation”. By studying the Victorians we can overcome all this. As models for emulation in the 21st century, Rees-Mogg offers 12 individuals, all of them “patriotic” and hard-working. (“These figures,” he says with a sideswipe at David Cameron – he’s not averse to a bit of sneering himself – “were not interested in ‘chillaxing’.”) They were, he insists in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, untroubled by self-doubt and knew what was the right thing to do.

It will not escape readers’ attention that all bar one of his subjects are men. Leaving aside Queen Victoria, who achieved her position and such influence as she wielded merely by virtue of heredity, women appear in this book only as wives and mothers. (Victoria herself is described as “wife and mother” and it is Albert who is credited with the creation of the modern constitutional monarchy.) The acknowledgments include four women “who typed up my words from either dictation or manuscript” or “assisted with some of the initial research”, as well as “my wife Helena’’ who “kindly looked after” their six children, “and, of course, nanny”, who is not dignified unnecessarily with a name. Strachey included a woman – Florence Nightingale – among the four subjects of Eminent Victorians, but clearly she wasn’t important enough to be covered here.

What we have instead are politicians, augmented by a handful of other men who contributed in one way or another to the world of politics, whether by providing the interior design for the new Palace of Westminster (Augustus Pugin) or by making explicit the nature and workings of the British constitution (AV Dicey) or by administering and securing the British empire and its dependencies (General Napier, William Sleeman, General Gordon). This is the view from inside the Westminster bubble. The people who matter are prime ministers (four of them in this book) and those who serve them in one way or another.

To name the most glaringly obvious omissions: there are no scientists (not even Darwin), no artists (not even Turner), no engineers (not even Brunel), no trade unionists (not even Robert Owen, or Annie Besant, champion of the striking match-girls of 1888), no educators (not even Thomas Arnold, one of Strachey’s subjects), no sociologists (not even Beatrice Webb), no explorers (not even Livingstone, let alone Isabella Bird), no writers (not even George Eliot, or Charles Dickens, or Anthony Trollope), no poets (not even Alfred Tennyson, not to mention Christina Rossetti), no doctors (not even John Snow, the pioneering researcher into cholera, or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who opened up the field of medicine to women), and no feminists (not even Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the pioneer of women’s suffrage, or Josephine Butler, despite the fact that as far as more than half the population was concerned, these and other women like them were the real titans who forged modern Britain).

“None of our figures,” Rees-Mogg hardly needs to add, “was a socialist, aiming to cut back prosperity for all in a hopeless quest for a phoney equality,” but then, the working class is entirely absent from this book, except as an object of upper-class philanthropy and the benevolence of politicians. Significant figures of the left, such as the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, are not mentioned – not even Keir Hardie.

The one non-Westminster figure discussed is the cricketer WG Grace, included mainly because, “as every Englishman knows”, more than any other sport, “cricket at its best captures the soul of the nation. Fair play, etiquette and gentlemanly behaviour.” Not much of the latter is evident in the modern game, but Rees-Mogg’s perceptions, here as elsewhere, are myopically rooted in the past. And Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland clearly don’t belong to “the nation”, an omission that typifies the disdain of Brexiteer ideologues for the rest of the United Kingdom beyond England’s borders (they’re not represented in this book, either; even General Gordon, who at least had Scottish ancestors, was born in Woolwich).

The endorsement on the back cover by the conservative historian Andrew Roberts calls The Victorians “well-researched and extremely well written” but in fact it’s neither of these things. Each of the 12 chapters is effectively based on a single, standard, full-length biography of its subject, written by someone else, often quite a long time ago: Sir Robert Peel by Norman Gash, for instance, (two vols, 1961-72), Disraeli by Robert Blake (1966), Gladstone by Philip Magnus (1954) and so on, eked out by a handful of other studies (the bibliography runs to a mere 60 titles, or five per chapter).

As for being “extremely well-written”, Roberts’s judgement – though he is no mean stylist himself – utterly fails him. Perhaps he was blinded by his political sympathies. The Victorians is written (or, as Rees-Mogg confesses, dictated) in a plodding, laborious and barely readable style, completely lacking in humour, sophistication or polish as well as in every other literary quality. Here’s a sample: “Disraeli, as we know, was especially good at being rude and, although we have a persistent image of the Victorians as bound by rigid rules of decorum and politeness, their politicians could be appallingly rude in ways that would be ruled out of order today and Disraeli was especially the master of the jibe.” And so on, and on, and on, in one lame, banal, poorly structured sentence after another, for more than 450 pages.

The accolades distributed to Rees-Mogg’s subjects are framed in clichés that no half-way intelligent or discerning writer would dream of handing out. Prime ministers are “great statesmen” and therefore to be treated with due deference. Albert and Victoria and their children, including the repulsive Bertie (later Edward VII), were a “happy family”. General Gordon (a mercenary soldier) was “a paragon of Victorian manhood”. General Napier was “heroic” and “daring” and won a “famous victory” at the Battle of Miani. Pugin is “remembered today with respect and admiration” because “he emphasised the notion of truthful and honest living, with buildings to match”.

Patriotic, enthusiastic and celebratory, it recalls nothing so much as Henrietta Marshall’s 1905 children’s history of Britain, Our Island Story (though Marshall was a much better writer than Rees-Mogg). This is the kind of history that Michael Gove, as education secretary, wanted to be promoted in the national history curriculum for schools, until he was forced to withdraw his proposals after a deluge of criticism and ridicule from the entire historical profession.

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Nowhere is this more evident than in Rees-Mogg’s handling of the British empire. General Gordon “believed that spreading British civilisation… was an intrinsic good in its own right”; Prince Albert had a “global vision… to spread civilisation”; the principles by which the British empire was governed were “founded on morality”. Napier went far beyond the orders he was given when he annexed the Indian province of Sindh, but this was because he felt a “moral imperative” to rescue its inhabitants from the squalor and feudalism under which they languished.

The British administrator William Sleeman devoted himself to eradicating the murderous rituals of the Thuggee cult, whose supposedly organised attacks on travellers are described in obsessive detail. Sleeman meted out “justice rough at the edges” but we should not “smear” him by criticising his actions, even though modern historical scholarship (which Rees-Mogg mentions only to dismiss it without any consideration of the evidence) regards Thuggee as a mythical concept devised by the British Raj to justify the harsh repression of mundane acts of banditry. Along with the abolition of suttee (the Indian practice of widows immolating themselves on the funeral pyres of their late husbands) and the suppression of the slave trade, the campaign against Thuggee demonstrates, in Rees-Mogg’s view, the essential benevolence of Victorian imperialism and the spread of British civilisation to benighted parts of the globe. This kind of colonial nostalgia exerts a baleful influence over the minds of Brexiteers today, who view the prospect of a “global Britain”, illusory though it is, as a kind of resurrection of the imperial glories of the Victorian era.

Naturally, the darker side of British imperialism is glossed over silently or not mentioned at all. Palmerston launched the Opium Wars against China to uphold the sacred principle of free trade with the “vast Asian market”. The wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace by an Anglo-French expedition near Beijing in 1860 was carried out by the French “indiscriminately and in an undisciplined manner” while the British behaved “coolly” and carried out their orders “systematically”. This was not quite what Gordon, who participated in the three-day orgy of destruction, reported: it was the British, he wrote, who behaved in a “vandal-like manner”, and he complained that the buildings were “so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully”. Still, he said complacently: “We got upwards of £48 apiece prize money… I have done well.”

There is no mention of the catastrophic famines that occurred in India following changes in land use enforced by the British taxation system, with two million deaths in 1860-1, six million in the 1870s and another five million in 1896-97. No mention of the sacking and looting of Benin in 1897. No mention of the “pacification” of Burma in 1886. No mention of the sending of huge numbers of Indians to other parts of the empire towards the end of the century as indentured labourers working under restrictions not dissimilar to those of slavery.

Here, as elsewhere, Rees-Mogg picks out of his source material only those aspects of his subjects’ lives that help him grind his political axe. Peel, for example, is described as a “self-made man”, though a few paragraphs later we are informed that he was “born into a world of considerable wealth”. Peel’s first parliamentary seat, too, was for a “rotten borough”, one in which there were only 24 voters, effectively controlled by his patron, the future Duke of Wellington. Peel, says Rees-Mogg, was concerned to improve the working conditions of the industrial poor, but in this account these were caused by self-interested trade unions that enforced restrictive practices and undermined the free operation of capital (grasping and exploitative capitalist employers were not to blame, then). Peel pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws “to advance the prosperity of factory workers by offering cheaper bread”, though this was not the real reason at all. Repeal in 1846 was a response to the Irish famine, in which more than a million people died, partly as a result of the restrictions on grain imports caused by the Corn Laws in the first place.

Palmerston appears as a foreign secretary who urged Britain not to “tie herself as an unnecessary appendage to the policy of any other government”, a principle the Brexiteer Rees-Mogg declares provides “an excellent basis” for Britain’s foreign policy today. Clearly Palmerston was not one to take any nonsense from Johnny Foreigner. When the Jewish merchant Don Pacifico, who was British by virtue of having been born in Gibraltar, had his house in Athens vandalised in anti-Semitic disturbances, he appealed to the British government for help. In a lengthy speech delivered in 1850, quoted approvingly by Rees-Mogg, Palmerston declared that any British citizen, anywhere, should be protected by the British government (Palmerston instituted a naval blockade of Greece until the issue was resolved). If Pacifico, a long-time consular representative of Portugal who had never been resident in Britain, were in a similar situation today, it’s hard to see the British government bothering at all about his fate.

The Victorians is hopelessly inadequate as history, but it’s also too badly written, too pompous and too cliché-ridden in every sense to serve its real purpose as providing any kind of historical justification for Brexit. What’s most striking about the book is its naivety and simple-mindedness – qualities shared by the Brexiteers in full measure as they declare that nothing could be easier than leaving the European Union. They promise a glorious economic future that is never going to materialise because Britain’s relationship with its major trading partner, the EU, would become dramatically more disadvantageous after Brexit.

This lack of realism is nowhere more evident than in Rees-Mogg’s paean of praise to the constitutional theorist AV Dicey, who advocated the use of referendums as a means of ensuring political stability by providing a “safety net, when the party system could not handle an issue”. The past three years have shown the exact opposite. The 2016 vote has created a situation in which the British political and constitutional system is in meltdown. It is clear that the party system as we have inherited it is completely incapable of handing the issue. Perhaps it’s time to listen to Dicey after all, then, and hold another referendum on Brexit. 

Richard J Evans is provost of Gresham College, London. His books include “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914” (Penguin)

The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain
Jacob Rees-Mogg
WH Allen, 464pp, £20

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake