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4 July 2018

How Jacob Rees-Mogg misread the Corn Laws in his warning to Theresa May

Told the PM that she risks the fate of her predecessor Robert Peel, who split the Conservatives and left them “out of majority office for 28 years”.

By Peter Wilby

Jacob Rees-Mogg warns Theresa May that, if she reneges on her promise to see Brexit through, she risks the fate of her predecessor Robert Peel – whose decision to “break his manifesto pledge” and support repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 split the Conservatives and left them “out of majority office for 28 years”.

Coming from Rees-Mogg, the analogy seems a curious one. Like the campaign against EU membership, the campaign against the Corn Laws, which were introduced in 1815 to protect British agriculture from cheap foreign imports, challenged the ruling elite and presented itself, in one historian’s words, as “a popular, we might almost say revolutionary, agitation”. With quasi-religious fervour – a Unitarian minister said the Corn Laws “defied the will of God” – advocates claimed repeal would deliver national salvation.

Richard Cobden and John Bright, the Anti-Corn Law League leaders, were rabble-rousers in the Nigel Farage class. The issue split the country as profoundly as Brexit has done. As GM Trevelyan wrote in his English Social History, “the harmony of the economic and social fabric… was shattered, giving place to a chaos of rival interests, town against country, rich against poor”. Again like Brexit, the campaign drew most support, at least initially, from the English north. Then as now, the Conservatives’ customary allies – then the landowners, now big business – favoured the status quo.

Cobden, a wealthy Mancunian manufacturer, purchased land and distributed it as freehold property to sympathisers, enabling them to vote in future elections. Conservative and Whig MPs feared for their seats. There was no natural majority for repeal in the Commons, just as there isn’t one now for Brexit, but the extra-parliamentary political pressure was irresistible.

The Conservatives voted two-to-one against repeal, but Peel had enough votes from Whigs and Radicals to secure a sizeable majority. He was driven from office but not, he said, “because I preferred the interests of party to the general interests of the community”.

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You’d expect Rees-Mogg to commend Peel to the PM as an example of virtuous conduct. Either the sage of Somerset has misunderstood the history or, in confusion and desperation, he is clutching at straws.

Silence the Donald

“Hate preachers” must be silenced, we are told. The government is considering new laws to stop the “radicalisation” of young Muslims who then become jihadists. In the wake of the murderous attack on the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, shouldn’t the UK visit of Donald Trump, hate preacher against journalists – he has called them “sick people”, “dishonest”, purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people” – be called off?

Scarce commodity

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, promises a smartphone app that will “revolutionise the way we access health services”, making it for example easier to book GP appointments. But it won’t address – and is more likely to exacerbate – the NHS’s fundamental problem, which is that we have too few doctors and too few nurses with too much to do. As he set up the service 70 years ago, Aneurin Bevan observed: “We shall never have all we need. Expectation will always exceed capacity.”

Since then, successive governments, instead of damping down expectations, have done everything possible to raise them. Tony Blair said the NHS should offer the same comfort and accessibility as the private sector. David Cameron, absurdly, envisaged a situation in which doctors waited before being told “the patient will see you now”. Political parties of all hues have promised to cut, and ultimately abolish, waiting times for operations and consultations.

Provide a scarce commodity free of charge and, in the absence of rationing by price, some other form of rationing – waiting, in the case of the NHS – must apply. On the service’s first morning, some doctors, expecting a tumultuous rush for free treatment, barricaded themselves in their offices. Patients simply formed an orderly queue. They showed a better grasp of economics than their great-grandchildren.

Not so beautiful game

As I write, the world is gripped by the story of the 12 Thai boys and their football coach found alive in a flooded cave after going missing for nine days. But what were they doing there in the middle of the monsoon season? The answer, presumably, is that it was some kind of toughening and bonding exercise decided upon by the coach.

Some of the boys are apparently as young as 11 but that is what football does: it causes otherwise rational adults to take leave of their senses – and children, hopeful that they can one day achieve international stardom, to do whatever their coaches demand, as recently illustrated by cases of young players being cruelly abused. Lest we forget, football is just a game, difficult as it is to remember as we watch (and sometimes
experience) the passions aroused by the World Cup.

Get with the programme

To the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End to watch 81-year-old Edward Fox in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. The programme doesn’t mention his performance as the assassin in the film The Day of the Jackal or anything else on his distinguished CV. It simply states: “Edward Fox is an actor with a very long career.”

That shows real style and I wonder if, in the age of Wikipedia, theatre managements could agree to make it the standard format, replacing the tedious lists of credits recalling such memorable performances as “woman at a bus stop in PPI [payment protection insurance] commercial”, an example I didn’t need to make up. This would allow theatres either to reduce the prices of programmes or to fill them with more
interesting material. 

This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit