1 October 2018 | 12:22

Imperialist Rees-Mogg and the paradox of Brexit

01 October 2018 12:22

That braying sound you may have heard emanating from the Midlands is lingering amusement at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s remarks at the Conservative conference last night. Speaking at a Brexiteer fringe meeting, the MP for Unforgivable Fogeyishness (South) referred to ‘the People’s Republic of…jam jar, or something like that, of Libya.’

What a character, eh? What Rees-Mogg meant was the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as the country was known under the late, unlamented Muammar Gaddafi from 1977 to 2011.

But Rees-Mogg wasn’t really talking about Libya. He was making a slightly tortured point about the People’s Vote, and how the use of the word ‘People’ often has a ‘whiff of totalitarianism’ – though not, presumably, when the Daily Mail savages judge defying the wishes of the Brexiteers as ‘Enemies of the People.’

In his apparently casual use of the word ‘jam jar’, he was employing a device long-cherished by the Right – which is to suggest, however nonchalantly, that foreign names are intrinsically funny and fair game for political humour.

The locus classicus (as Rees-Mogg himself might say) is Alan Clark’s reference in 1985 to ‘Bongo Bongo Land’ – language repeated by Godfrey Bloom in 2013 when he was UKIP’s MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, in reference to countries receiving British overseas aid. Bloom grudgingly apologised, but later insisted that he ‘didn’t feel that I’d done anything wrong.’

A twofold psychology is at work here. First, Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg evoke a long-lost imperial ethos, in which the sun never set on the British Empire, and well-educated chaps could say more or less what they liked about foreigners – all in good sport, you know. This is the great paradox of Brexit: that it depends so heavily on a tragic nostalgia for the global power of a century ago, even as it leads inexorably to a contraction of Britain’s influence on the world stage.

Second, there is a playground defiance at work: a signal to the party faithful in Birmingham that they should not feel intimidated by our old friend ‘political correctness gone mad’. And why should they? Why should a governing party be expected to behave in a responsible and mature fashion, after all? Whatever happened to fun?

I have heard these feeble arguments often, and increasingly. I sometimes wonder if they are a sign of deep desperation, of buried knowledge that the Tory Party is hurtling into an orbit of its own creation, far distant from the real world of 2018. Either way, such jokes ring miserably hollow: they are the distant mumblings of a party descending into reactionary naffness, as the rest of the country laughs at, not with, it.