What is Rees-Mogg watching?
On 31 March, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted a frame from a YouTube video of a recent speech by the far-right German politician Alice Weidel, with the message: ‘The AfD leader asks “Is it any wonder the British see bad faith behind every manoeuvre from Brussels?”’
In the replies to his tweet it is hard to find anything but anger and criticism from a range of overlapping constituencies (liberal, left, anti-racist) who seized on it to call him out and confirm what they know already: Rees-Mogg’s far-right sympathies and credentials. There is also a sense of frustration, variations of ‘how can this be happening?’
‘No, no no no no, look I’m not supporting the AfD,’ Rees-Mogg said in a radio interview on LBC yesterday. But: ‘I think it’s important people know that this is a strand of German political thinking. I don’t think retweeting is an endorsement of things that other people stand for. It’s just pointing out that there’s something interesting that is worth watching.’
Is Weidel’s speech worth watching? She argues that Brussels should have given Cameron what he asked for: ‘No more social welfare, immediately and for everyone’ (she pointedly steers clear of the word ‘immigration’). The brutal terms now being dealt to Britain, she says, are a way of ensuring French dominance, and will have a devastating effect on the German economy and the German taxpayer. Weidel presumes a hierarchy of nations both within Europe and outside it. After Britain’s exit, she argues, France will be able to rely on the support of ‘Club Med’ countries (places for Northern Europeans to holiday in, with a connotation of louche living) to outvote Germany and its Northern European allies, to advance its own centralising agenda. She regrets that Britain may be offered nothing more than the trading status of Paraguay or Papua New Guinea.
The scandal or shock of Rees-Mogg’s tweet doesn’t come from the words he quotes, or even from Weidel’s speech as a whole, unpleasant though it is. It comes, rather, from the dynamic between the utterance, who said it, and the ways it is recontextualised for different audiences. Rees-Mogg made a point of mentioning on LBC that Weidel was addressing the Bundestag. In other words, he implied, she was speaking in a legitimate context and as an elected representative. Her discourse is approved, or at least permitted, by the institutions of German democracy.
The MP for North East Somerset has made something of a cult of his eccentricity and if he wants to spend his Sundays watching Bundestag debates on YouTube, I’ve no desire to stop him. But the link he supplies in his tweet is not to the Bundestag’s official YouTube channel. It is to a channel made up of speeches, party political broadcasts and ads from far-right European parties, translated into English with approving headings (‘BBC Blackwashing British History’, ‘Brilliant 3 minute speech by Marion Le Pen’, ‘No Country for Straight White Men’, ‘Powerful video about Italy’s demographic and identity crisis’, and a lot of speeches from the AfD). It’s clear from the comments below the video that Weidel is a popular and familiar figure for the channel’s British viewers: ‘We need her in Britain’; ‘What a fantastic speech. Thatcherian. We need someone like this’; ‘Thank you Dr Weidel, a true friend to Britain. Hope you’re not too late to help us.’
The channel is clearly a ‘safe space’ for the far right; there are very few dissenting voices. Rees-Mogg’s tweet does two lots of work. First, it is guaranteed to anger and provoke anyone concerned about the rise of the far right in British politics. Second, Rees-Mogg is talking to the people who watch far-right YouTube channels. He isn’t telling them what to watch; they know that already. He’s telling them he’s watching it too.