Sometimes, in politics, a name comes to signify far more than the views, accomplishments or even actions of its inhabitant. Think, for example, of Mao and Stalin; but think also of Margaret Thatcher and Hugh Gaitskell. All these figures gave rise to ‘isms’ that were well understood ideologically, but also had an important cultural resonance. Of all the players currently strutting the modern political stage, it is hard to think of anyone more likely to give rise to an ‘ism’ than Jacob Rees Mogg. Adored by the Tory right and despised in equal measure by the left, the centre and just about everyone else (except hard Brexiteers, that is) Rees Mogg stands head and shoulders above his Parliamentary colleagues simply because actually seems to stand for something. He is a traditionalist, a High Tory with a pedigree and a property portfolio to match. He is socially conservative, a committed Catholic, unafraid to speak his mind on controversial issues like same-sex marriage and abortion (he’s a fundamentalist on that one), and he consciously traces his political lineage back to the free trade Toryism of Robert Peel.
Yet scratch the surface of JRM’s impeccable Thatcherite pedigree and cracks start to appear. His admiration for Peel’s libertarian economic views is tempered by an equal regard for Disraeli’s one-nation social policies. He believes that politics should be used to “make people’s lives better” and he concedes that, sometimes, this requires state intervention. He opposes capital punishment, and has spoken out against the withdrawal of ‘due process’ for British jihadists abroad. Hardly the stuff of populist clickbait, these. By all accounts, he also takes his political duties extremely seriously. Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge his old-fashioned work ethic, his willingness to travel across the country in order to speak to local associations, and, of course, his independence of mind. He simply refuses to tow the party line, and if (as many believe) he is a ruthless careerist, he seems to be going about it in a very strange way.
Yet even these factors do not entirely explain the political phenomenon that is JRM. Of course, there is that inflexible attitude to Brexit. But beyond this, there also seems to be a secret ingredient, an X-factor that no-one else on the political scene has. It is a kind of cheery, effortless anachronism; a double-breasted, Eton-prepped infallibility that resonates with certain sections of the public as much as it does with Tory stalwarts. Quite simply, he has the aura of one who was born to rule, and many voters seem to believe it as much as he does. Where Boris Johnson head butted his way to the Tory leadership like a punk John Bull, it feels like Rees Mogg will sail serenely in at his appointed time and dock at Number 10 with the minimum of fuss. So how are we to account for this heady mix of effortless entitlement, independence of mind, and a strong commitment to public duty? There’s Eton, of course, and Oxford’s clubby conservatism; but in these he is very little different to much of the Conservative front bench. If we dig a little deeper, it seems that Rees Mogg’s studied historicism, his old-fashioned approach to privilege and public duty, have much stronger roots than even he might have suspected. For deep in the correspondence of the Poor Law Commissioners at The National Archives, it turns out that his forebears had the kind of county pedigree that young Jacob might have dreamed of as he plotted his way to the top.
The story begins with the Reverend John Rees, a Welshman who married well. His wife was Mary Mogg Wooldridge, the only child of William Wooldridge and Mary Mogg, and the heir to Cholwell House in North Somerset. On marrying, in 1805, John Rees assumed a portion of his wife’s name by royal license, according to the wishes of her maternal grandfather, and thus the Rees Mogg dynasty was born. John and Mary had two sons: John Jr., born in 1806, and William, born in 1815. Both were educated at Charterhouse (the alma mater of Jacob’s own father, William), and both went on to become successful solicitors and pillars of the local county set. John was a Captain in the North Somerset Yeoman Cavalry, Secretary to the local Society for the Protection of Property, and a Steward of the Somersetshire Society. William, too, did his bit, presiding at the annual dinner of the Writhlington District Agricultural Society, only a stone’s throw from Jacob’s childhood home at Ston Easton. In later life, William was also the Chairman of the local Board of Guardians; but his, and his family’s, association with this particular aspect of paternalistic public service began much earlier; at the very beginning of the New Poor Law, in fact.
In the minutes of the first meeting of the Clutton Board of Guardians in 1836, it was reported that Henry Hodges Mogg had been appointed temporary Clerk until a permanent, salaried, replacement could be found. Within a fortnight, the post had been filled by John Rees Mogg, Henry Hodges’ nephew – who would later become his son-in-law, as well. John occupied the position of Clerk to the Guardians for at least eighteen years, when the remaining correspondence from Clutton Union to the Poor Law Commissioners unfortunately ends. There is nothing remarkable about John’s appointment as a union clerk: as we have seen, he was an up-and-coming county solicitor, and men with legal training were often chosen for this complex administrative role. Surprisingly, however, John was soon joined in the position by William, his brother, who became joint Clerk to the Board in 1837 and continued to serve with him until at least 1854. As far as one can tell from their correspondence, the brothers were extremely conscientious and diligent in their work. Indeed, the Poor Law Board was persuaded to acquiesce to this unusual (though not unique) arrangement on the advice of the Assistant Commissioner, who stated that “there will be no alteration in salary, and as [John Rees] Mogg is a valuable officer, he has no hesitation in recommending the appointment”. Later, the Commissioners specifically wrote to the brothers to thank them for the care with which they prepared the various annual returns relating to paupers and union finance.
The Rees Moggs were not, however, against challenging the authority of the Commissioners, albeit gently. More than once, they requested permission to use union funds to reimburse extraordinary expenses incurred by the guardians – something that was against the explicit policies of the Commissioners themselves. When rebuffed, they used all their legal training to find a form of words that might persuade the Commissioners, though usually to little effect. Only once did they express anything like open dissent to the constituted authorities, however. In 1846, they forwarded “a parcel containing the extract of the Applications and Report Books of the Relieving Officers…as required”, but went on to observe, rather testily, that:
We trust that we shall not be called upon again for a document of so lengthy a nature, for it is obvious that while preparing such the Officers of the Union engaged on it, must in a great deal neglect their ordinary duties.
The response of the Commissioners is instructive, and it seems to demonstrate just how much they valued the brothers’ long and dedicated service. Rather than adopt the imperious tone with which they met most instances of defiance or complaint, they wrote that “the Commissioners desire to express their regret at the trouble you have had in preparing the Return in question”, merely emphasising that it “is called for by the House of Commons”.
As already mentioned, William went on to become the Chairman of the Board of Guardians as well as a very wealthy landowner and industrialist in his own right; and John was a member of Glastonbury Town Council from 1875 until his death in 1880. In particular, the elder son’s commitment to local civic duty was a strong theme in his death notices, where it was stated that “he always used his sound good sense, education and abilities, to the furtherance of the interests of the town generally”. Indeed, at his funeral, “every respect was paid to [his] memory”, with “most of the tradespeople and inhabitants” closing their shops and drawing their blinds as the funeral cortege passed by.
Intriguingly, neither brother went on to pursue a career in national politics. JRM’s father, William (famed editor of the Times), put this down to a lack of ambition, or perhaps the absence of suitable connections, neither of which could possibly be leveled at the current Rees Mogg. Nonetheless, it is clear that both were paragons of Victorian public service and Christian moral duty, and in this they seem to have handed down to their great great grandson and nephew a ready-made template for his own persona and a set of social and political beliefs that fit him as well as his double-breasted suit and polka dot tie. Not for nothing did Esquire magazine describe him as “a verbose, seemingly genteel caricature of a benevolent workhouse owner”*. Fortunately for JRM, it is also a persona that seems to chime with large swathes of the Conservative public. He is an anachronism, but he is their anachronism: step forward, the Honourable Member for the 1850s.
* We assume that by “workhouse owner”, the writer for Esquire really meant one of the Guardians who were in charge of its administration; for as every popular journalist surely knows, Victorian workhouses were civic institutions and not privately run.
- The story behind John and William Rees Mogg’s service as Clerks to the Clutton Union Board of Guardians can be found at The National Archives: MH 12/10320 to 10324. Other details about John, William and the Victorian Rees Moggs were gleaned from a search of the British Library’s online newspaper collection: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/.