This piece was co-written by Michael Curzon, Jake Scott and Angus Gillan.
Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on the 9th of March entered a lecture hall full of 300 people at the University of Birmingham to a sea of applause from a wide range of politicos. The event was organised by the University of Birmingham Conservatives, and attended by students of all political persuasions, from Socialist Students to Conservatives themselves, and – surprisingly – not a single protestor (inside).
After the applause died out, Rees-Mogg took the time to thank everyone for attending, and reflected the great conservative tradition Birmingham has, both the city and the university, from Mayor and founder of the university, Joseph Chamberlain, and his sons, Conservative Prime Minister Neville and Chancellor and Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, through to current Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street.
Stressing the importance of engaging with the youth, Rees-Mogg paid homage to Sam Gyimah and other MPs attempts to go out to universities as students are ‘the future leaders of the country’ and should be doing their best to partake in debates, as politicians should not, in the words of the man himself, engage in the floccinaucinihilipilification (estimation as worthless) of student politics [Applause]. Jacob Rees-Mogg anchored his speech around two key issues: what is conservatism; and the zeitgeist of freedom of speech.
What is conservatism?
‘Preserving what is good; not preserving everything.’ Rees-Mogg begins his articulation of the philosophy with a strong reference to Edmund Burke, and the importance of ‘learning from history and experience.’ Stressing organicism, Rees-Mogg referred to the importance of a ‘belief that society is built from the bottom-up, not top-down’ and that conservatism is helping people to achieve, but not guiding them through central planning. Furthermore, Rees-Mogg talked of refuting the idea of conservatism as ‘living in the past’ but instead ‘recognising the things which have developed over generations, sometimes over centuries, have been tried and tested and are likely to continue to work,’ and goes on to say that ‘you only need to change them when they show signs of failing.’
Building on this, Rees-Mogg asked the crowd, ‘who here would like to own their own home by the age of 35?’ to which everyone raised their hands. From Rees-Mogg’s view, this typifies his opposition to complex housing planning laws, and referenced the consistent preference of people to owning a house with a garden, which has stayed at roughly 80% since the 1940s – whereas only 3% would like to live in tower blocks. This is a long tradition in conservatism, and most clearly found its expression in Margaret Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy.’ ‘This is because,’ Rees-Mogg believes, ownership of a house grants one a ‘stake in the capital of the nation.’ By this, the concept is that once people are able to own their own house, they have a stake in the society which translates into greater community cohesion.
Moving onto the economy, Rees-Mogg criticised the socialist approach to the economy, as focusing on the redistribution of wealth that already exists, compared to the conservative desire to increase wealth with the intention that more people would benefit from a richer economy. And the key to this, Rees-Mogg says, keeping your own money in the first place, as ‘individuals spend their money better than central planning, bureaucratic governments do.’ From this, we realise that ‘there is no such thing as government money and that borrowing is simply delayed taxation – which means you have a moral duty to spend it wisely.’
Mogg then talked about the retention of wealth under a conservative system, moving on to the increased benefits system under the Conservative, as seen in the 2018 Spring Statement – and typified by Labour’s lies on the ‘reduction’ (read, expansion) of Free School Meals (Channel Four Fact Check). Furthermore, people who retain their wealth are able to grow and the economy will flourish – increasing peoples’ quality of life and those of their children and their community.
This freedom to flourish linked in to Rees-Mogg’s support of the current tuition fees system, which ‘put you in charge’ and give students ‘as customers extreme authority’ to shape the educational market. Rees-Mogg referenced the fact that, on average, graduates are £100,000 to £500,000 better off throughout their lives, which links to the societal principal that graduates should pay for their success, not non-graduates.
Finally, Rees-Mogg championed the extension of opportunity of university education through the tuition fees changes, noting that the removal of caps allowed universities to offer more places to those from a disadvantaged background. Indeed, since 2010 there has been a roughly 70% increase in individuals from the poorest in society going to university, and ‘taking individual responsibility for their education.’
Freedom of Speech
Having been interrupted by protesters during a speech at Bristol University last month, Rees-Mogg spent time highlighting the importance of the freedom of speech; without this, he claimed, ‘there is no democracy.’ A handful of protestors had gathered outside the building at the University of Birmingham in which in which he was talking, though none came into the room or attempted to interrupt proceedings.
This manner of protesting, Rees-Mogg said, is quite acceptable: ‘I think its marvellous that people come out and protest what I’ve got to say because they are exercising their right to speak.’ What is not acceptable, he continued, is when people try to prevent events from taking place, thus restricting others’ ‘birth right[s] to have free speech to express any view that [they] wish.’ Rees-Mogg argued that the line ought to be drawn where ‘there is incitement to violence of any kind,’ rather than where people are simply offended by what is being said.
Rees-Mogg also pointed out that where there is not this freedom, there is ‘corruption’ and ‘wrong doing,’ mentioning Putin’s Russia as an example. On this note, he urged all those present to defend the freedom of speech ‘at university and throughout your lives, wherever it is threatened.’
Following the talk to the audience there was a question and answer session with the student audience. Rees-Mogg joked that the audience could ask about Brexit, as it was an issue that seemed to come up from time to time… firstly then, without a shock, an EU related question reared.
Q: How will our future relationship with the European Union affect our membership of Euratom and use of medical isotopes?
The issue was clarified by Rees-Mogg, noting that Euratom has no jurisdiction over medical isotopes used in cancer treatments; therefore, we will be able to carry on with life saving medical treatment that will not be affected by Britain’s exit of the EU.
Q: How do you, as an MP, reconcile your own personal beliefs with those of your constituents?
The audience member notes how Rees-Mogg’s personal views have caused divisions, as shown by protestors at his events. Rees-Mogg replies that constituents have the right to know what he believes, and as their representative he will always strive to represent their views. However, that does necessarily mean that as an MP he must always align every one of his views with that of the constituents, mainly because it is impossible to find any two people who hold identical beliefs.
The importance of the democratic process was also a key point in Rees-Mogg’s response to this question. It was stressed in that one great quality of our system was that the people had the power, and if he acted in such a way that his constituents found abhorrent he would be voted out.
Mr. Rees-Mogg highlighted how one must work to represent their constituents year-round, so that when there are disagreements, which there will inevitably be, then there is no friction or uproar, because free votes exist to allow MPs to vote how they believe.
Q: How does Mr. Rees-Mogg think the government should respond to the rising numbers of individuals sleeping rough in the UK?
Rees-Mogg responded to the question by pointing out that rough sleeping numbers has decreased steadily since 1995 but conceded that there does appear to have been a recent increase. The issue that was focused on here was the lack of communication regarding government support, as those who are rough sleeping are already difficult to contact.
There are various cash payments for welfare if you need it – and as before, an issue is the communication of policy and the intricacies of those policies.
Rees-Mogg also clarified a previous statement he made in support of foodbanks, stressing that while it is indeed deplorable that individuals may need to use foodbanks, we should applaud the community response in the form of foodbanks.
Q: Does Mr. Rees-Mogg think the Foreign Aid budget ought to be reduced?
Jacob began to address this question by talking about the importance of soft power; Rees-Mogg said he was in favour of emergency aid that only governments deliver, as personal charity can only go so far.
The issue he has is the set rigid target (0.7% of GDP) as it provides no flexibility – rather it appears to be a tick list of simply providing the required 0.7% and that’s that, rather than either say having a good fiscal quarter and being able to spend more on aid or having a bad fiscal quarter and spending less on aid as the money is spent, say, on the NHS.
We need to focus also in emerging markets to build influence and truly transform peoples’ lives, Mr. Rees-Mogg said, calling on his experience as an investment banker, managing emerging markets.
Q: Do you think Russia is responsible for the Salisbury Poisoning, and if so how should we respond?
We should go hard on them, Mr. Rees-Mogg says, not just expelling diplomats – but go after their wealth, make it clear Britain will not be a haven for state corruption and oligarchic wealth being illegally or crookedly funnelled into the county. We haven’t been tough enough.
Q: Given that mental healthcare is becoming the great issue of our time, how should care be provided?
Jacob’s answer comes cautiously – he is not an expert on mental health, but believes it is an important issue that needs addressing. Luckily, he says, we have seen a change in society about how we approach it and so we are seeing mental health progress coming on leaps and bounds – there is also massive cross party support for reform. But more needs to be done.
Jake Scott is editor of the Mallard and a Master’s student of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham.
Angus Gillan is an Undergraduate student of Ancient History at the University of Birmingham and currently a council candidate for Bournbrook and Selly Park.
Michael Curzon is an Undergraduate student of History and Political Science at the University of Birmingham, editor of the Fultum Post, and Treasurer of the University of Birmingham Conservatives society.
Credits to Jake Leonard for photography.