Jacob Rees-Mogg is the stupid kind of Tory’s idea of what a clever kind of Tory ought to sound like. He knows a few long and obscure words. He can employ a smattering of the Latin phrases that he picked up during his education at an expensive academy near Slough. Among the easily bamboozled, the double-breasted suits, the retro spectacles and the patrician drawl can be confused with seriousness. So I suppose that this attempt to show that he deserves a reputation as a Tory intellectual may do quite well at the bookshop at the next Conservative conference. Yet even the dimmer type of Tory may twig that they have been duped once they embark on 400-plus pages of inch-deep ponderings conveyed in plodding prose.
Rees-Mogg has written this book because in some way – or so he thinks – the people he seeks to delineate symbolise the political causes he espouses today. It is a tragedy for those of us who share his views on Europe and the Conservative Party that he should inadvertently undermine his case by this caricature of history.
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 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.
Having set up his Aunt Sally, Rees-Mogg embarks on his mission to rescue the Victorians. His method is to focus on 11 men and one woman, the queen-empress herself. Some historians, he admits, “quarrel about the importance of individuals in the development of history and argue about how much would have happened anyway”. This is true enough. “However, the drive and industry of certain people cannot be ignored and the effects of their lives and their decisions can in fact be discerned and something of their impact glimpsed.” This is true, too: so true that no sane person would deny it, so there seems little point writing it down.
Rees-Mogg appears to have made a virtue of ignoring most relevant scholarship of the past 50 years, and the irony is that – for all his fan-boying over General Gordon and Co – has little interest in the actual Victorians. Instead the esteemed member for North East Somerset prefers to rehash half-remembered anecdotes from a Boy’s Own story, or perhaps tales told by his nanny. The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.
This, then, is biography as manifesto, although even that is to dignify The Victorians with a coherence it doesn’t possess. In the space of a few paragraphs Rees-Mogg tells us that the Victorian age was strong and stable, except for those times when it was trembling on the brink of revolution. The royal family was a beloved rallying point for the nation, as long as you don’t count that time in 1855 when Albert and Victoria were so unpopular that they were rumoured to have been arrested and locked up in the Tower...In parliament, Rees-Mogg is often referred to as “the honourable member for the 18th century”, a nod to those funny clothes he wears, along with pretending not to know the name of any modern pop songs. What a shame, then, that he has not absorbed any of the intellectual and creative elegance that flourished during that period.
The Victorians consists of a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions about 19th-century characters. Prince Albert is praised as “truly virtuous”. The cricketer WG Grace and the crackpot General Gordon are seen as great patriots. Rees-Mogg’s first hero is Sir Robert Peel, because he was prepared to split the Conservative Party for patriotic reasons. In the Rees-Mogg version, Peel’s decision to abolish the corn laws and support free trade rather than tariffs on imported corn becomes a parable about the European Research Group’s patriotic decision to face down the Tory wets.... Rees-Mogg proudly says at the outset that his book will be “anathema to the present-day politically correct elite”. But also anathema, surely, to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense.