There’s this very specific thing that certain right-wing British politicians do when they want to talk down other cultures.
They know it’s probably a bit vulgar to be straightforwardly racist. To just come out and say “We’re superior to them” or “I hate X race because…” would be so passé, wouldn’t it? So they decide to disguise it with a linguistic flourish – a bit of wordplay or a scrap of imagery that sounds too ridiculous to be sinister, but is utterly dismissive of the people they’re trying to describe.
Serial offender Boris Johnson’s poem about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having sex with a goat is a good example. It’s just a jokey rhyme, after all! Who’s saying Turks are uncivilised barbarians? Not me, guv! That deflection is clear in the racist insults he’s used to describe black people in his writing: the “watermelon smiles” he imagined on people’s faces in the Congo in a 2002 Telegraph column, for example – an evocative fruit-based simile, nothing more!
An old-fashioned racist description of African countries as “Bongo Bongo Land” has been around for decades in some form – trotted out in advertisements, songs and, of course, the mouths of politicians – and was resurrected by ex-Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom in 2013, during a speech about foreign aid. While he agreed not to use the term again, he told the Telegraph at the time: “It’s a derogatory phrase, yes, but I meant it to be derogatory – I didn’t mean it to be racist.” And then showed off a set of bongo drums he’d been sent.
Archaic phrases and bizarre imagery are the mainstay of this certain type of right-wing man – hiding their intolerance behind sham eccentricity.
And this is precisely what Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hard-right Brexiteer with a reputation as one of the politest men in politics – all double-breasted jackets, immaculate partings, and genteel vowels – was doing when he called Libya the “People’s Republic of Jam Jar” at Conservative party conference:
“All the countries who are least interested in their people call themselves ‘people’s’, don’t they? So the People’s Republic of China? Oh, that’s communist. And the People’s Republic of… jam jar, or something like that, of Libya, was what it was called when Colonel Gaddafi was in charge.”
While trying to make the, frankly, teenage-boy-discovers-A Level-politics argument that countries called “people’s republics” are often autocratic regimes, Rees-Mogg mocked Libya’s full name following Muammar Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 (when its official title was “Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” from 1977 to 1986, and “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” from 1986 to 2011).
Rees-Mogg’s thoughts on Gaddafi’s leadership are irrelevant here. What he’s doing is making fun of an Arabic word (loosely meaning “state of the masses”), dismissing the language and culture as vaguely ridiculous and unworthy of serious discussion, while trying to sound English and whimsical. And it’s no better than Ukip-style sniggers about “Bongo Bongo Land” that he probably finds most unsophisticated.