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The polite extremist: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seemingly unstoppable rise

A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?

Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.

A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.

This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.

He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.

But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with  strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.

“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.

“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”

Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”

Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.


It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.

He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.

In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”

The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.

Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea  Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.

“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”


At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th century” struggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.

Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.

But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.

Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.

As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.

In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic  damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.

He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.

Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”

And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.

He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of  Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they
have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”

On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.


And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.

Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.

Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.

He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”

However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.


But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”

Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts  – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that  mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.

But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

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“I call him the Pope of Jamaica”: An encounter with Shaggy and Sting

Rock’s oddest couple on Trump, Brexit, privilege and the perils of the public laundromat.


Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.

Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.

They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.

Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:

“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”

And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.

“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.

Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.

“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.

“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.

Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”

Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.

When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.

Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”

“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”

“Patience,” says Shaggy.

“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”

“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?

“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”

A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.

Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”

Shaggy was described as a Jamaican Benny Hill. Credit: Rex


Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.

Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.

“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”

Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.

He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.

At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.

“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”

Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.

“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”

“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”

Agitprop is worse than off-putting, it’s counterproductive”: Sting enjoying a glass in the 1980s. Credit: Graham Wood/Daily Mail/Rex


Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”

Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”

His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.

“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”

Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.

“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.

“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.

Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?

“I did!”

After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.

To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.

“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”

Shaggy during his military service in the US Marines 

Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.

“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”

He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.

Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”

“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”

And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.

“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”

44/876 is released on 20 April on Polydor “The Last Ship” is on tour in the UK now

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876, as well as reviewing the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrating the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:


Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist