These men are treated as harmless, funny outliers. But their views are real—and stand to do real harmby / September 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
It started with Boris.
There he was on Have I Got News For You with his funny hair, bumbling along to gentle jokes from Hislop and Merton. As the nation giggled at one of our more eccentric Old Etonian politicians, the things we sort of always knew about him faded from memory.
What were those things? His callous attitude towards women. His comments about piccaninnies with their watermelon smiles—a comment worthy of that other ‘gaffe prone’ aristocrat, Prince Philip. His stated concerns about gay marriage, which could, he claimed, lead to three men marrying their dog. The made-up stories about the EU demanding a standardised condom size. None of this was a secret. His views weren’t hidden.
But he’s funny! we cried. Look at his hair!
The next thing we knew, he was Mayor of London. Now he’s Foreign Secretary, treated with mocking contempt by even the Trump White House.
Which brings me to Trump. Another eccentric; another perceived ‘outsider’ who had in fact always been on the inside, claiming to “say the unsayable” when, in fact, he was saying things which, again, we’ve all heard before. Trump’s supporters hailed him as an anti-establishment figure who wasn’t afraid of speaking to truth to power: as if being anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights, anti-Civil Rights and anti-climate change has even been a revolutionary position. As if being successful as a rich white man has ever been anything but the status quo for power in America.
And now we have Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is tipped as the grassroots favourite to replace Theresa May should the Tories have a leadership election. Have we really not learnt our lesson?
With his cut-glass English accent, his habit of dropping Latin phrases into conversation, and his three piece suits, Rees-Mogg has been received with that typically British indulgence to the eccentric aristocrat. For a long time, he was seen as a gently comic character from another era, a nostalgic throwback to a ‘simpler’ time when politicians were gentlemen squires of the manor.
But with Rees-Mogg edging closer to serious power, this indulgence has to stop.
Because it’s not just his suits that echo an earlier era: his views chime with a time when women knew their place, and power was the inherited privilege of wealthy white men.
Most of us are familiar with the news story that, after the birth of his sixth child, Rees-Mogg confessed to never having changed a nappy. It was seen as a silly season headline. But in the context of his wider views, Rees-Mogg’s attitudes towards domestic division of labour is telling. It suggests that he sees child rearing and care duties as fundamentally women’s work.
Do we really want someone who holds these views and supports these norms in charge of employment policy—particularly at a time when leaving the EU could have an impact on issues around parental working rights? Can we trust a potential PM, or even a cabinet minister, who believes that men don’t need to take on a fair division domestic labour to protect women’s working and familial rights?
The dangers of Rees-Mogg’s views go beyond his refusal to change nappies. He has stated that he is against equal marriage and anti-abortion in any circumstances—including in instances of rape.
We should never become complacent about progress. However, the evidence suggests the Conservatives would not vote to roll back equal marriage rights.
Abortion is another matter: the Conservative Party has repeatedly attempted to curb a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. In 2014, all but one member of the Tory front bench tried to reduce the abortion upper time limit. A few years earlier, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tabled a motion to prevent certain charities offering abortion counselling. Following the DUP deal this year, Owen Paterson was one prominent MP who suggested that, while equal marriage would be protected, there could be a debate on abortion rights.
If a virulently anti-abortion MP becomes leader of the Conservative Party and therefore Prime Minister, there’s a very real chance he would build on these past attempts to restrict abortion rights and threaten women’s access to a termination. (Remember, this would be happening at a time when the Justice Secretary also holds anti-choice views.)
There have already been moves from the Conservatives to restrict women’s access to abortion. If they elect a leader who opposes abortion in all circumstances, then we could see our hard-won right to choose under threat.
We have a tendency to think that members of a mainstream party must have mainstream views. This is not the case with Rees-Mogg. His views on gay rights and abortion, as well as on race, do not reflect those of the wider British public—both Tory supporters and not—or, indeed, the views of most British Catholics.
It’s time to look past the bespectacled posh chap in the Savile Row tailoring and see Jacob Rees-Mogg for the man he is—a man who holds homophobic and misogynistic views who could one day use his power to restrict women’s freedoms. And there’s nothing eccentric about that.