The Two Jacobs
James Meek on Post-Brexit Britain
We find ourselves in a fantastical place: deep in the mire of post-Brexit politics before Brexit has happened. Brexit used to be about leaving the European Union. The contest for the Tory leadership, just drawing to a close as I write, has been a glaring signal that quitting the EU may not be the referendum’s gravest outcome. In the past three years the meaning of Brexit has shifted. First, what was supposed to be a future event with bureaucratically limited parameters became a rallying cry for a diffuse set of resentments. Now, the marshals of those resentments are poised to take over the government. The nominal result of the leadership election always seemed certain: the Conservative membership – in size, gender and wealth quite similar to the gentry-only British electorate of the 18th century – might as well have been answering the question ‘Which politician called Boris Johnson would you like to lead Britain?’ But the true winners in a Johnson victory are the insurgents who have worked inside and outside Parliament to make their version of the ideas propelling the Brexit cause into a ruling ethos for the nation. The new prime minister will live in a nice house in the middle of London, but it won’t be his house. Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Arron Banks bought it for him. They own 10 Downing Street, and they own him.
Amid a cascade of extreme events and consequences, we all tend to lose focus – not just the humble citizen but those charged with steering us through. Early in the struggle to cope with the aftermath of the explosion at Chernobyl, the Soviet leadership congratulated itself on having put out the fire in the ruined reactor building. The country’s scientists had to point out the hollowness of the achievement relative to a larger problem: the lava-like mass of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth and render the ground water of Ukraine’s fifty million inhabitants toxic for life.
Here, we haven’t put out the fire of the 2016 referendum, either by acting on the result or by repudiating it. But even when we do finally take action, why do we assume it would stop the meltdown? It’s a charming received idea that we can suddenly mend the political divide the 2016 referendum opened up – by leaving the EU, or by getting a million-odd voters to vote the other way in a second referendum. But what then happens to the cultural-political strands that seem, with apologies to the good consciences of socialist and liberal Leavers, such reliable markers of Leave sentiment? Unquestioning patriotism, nativism, belief in white British supremacy, fear of Muslims, bring-backery, the search for traitors, faith privileged over evidence, ersatz imperial nostalgia, exaggerated expectations of familial favours from the white rulers of ex-colonies, climate change scepticism, the yearning for a return to the gender and racial stereotypes of forty years ago, the belief that ‘civil servant’ and ‘corrupt, meddling bureaucrat’ are synonyms, the glorification of the British military? Are they really just strands of a particular Ukip/right-wing Tory mindset that will, after the resolution of the referendum vote, unravel and shrink back into the minority of individuals who harbour them?
Twice, Nigel Farage has gathered those cultural-political strands together in the cause of Brexit and thrown the Tories – and British politics in general – into convulsions. This suggests that there’s a powerful, socially conservative, defensively patriotic constituency out there that might put, for instance, a redundant industrial worker and a landed aristocrat in the same camp for causes other than Europe. Britain’s EU exit/non-exit hasn’t happened, but Faragism has acquired independent substance. Johnson set out his pitch as bait to tempt the Faragists, hoping to consume their votes in order to feed his dying party. But you are what you eat: in doing so, he has turned the Tories into Faragists, and Britain’s government into a Faragist government. Although there’s little risk of Labour succumbing to Faragism, Jeremy Corbyn, too, is reliant enough on Faragists among formerly loyal Labour voters to feel beholden to them. It can’t be assumed that pressure on Labour to pander to Faragism will go away once Brexit is resolved. The Attlee years of Labour’s pride, when the welfare state was born, also saw a surge in defence spending and efforts to reboot the empire to hard-up Britain’s benefit.
Eventually the economic dimension of politics will reassert itself, and the Faragists will have to negotiate the reality of Britain’s place in the world: 2 per cent of the global economy, less than 1 per cent of the world’s population, curating 18 per cent of the world’s international bank liabilities. And that’s why the third figure among the Faragists, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the de facto ideologue until now of their parliamentary wing, is such an interesting case in helping us to understand what is happening in Britain. Farage and Johnson have been able to get round the deep problem of Faragism – the same killer bug lurking in Thatcherism that got us to where we are today, that a global free market has no sentimental bias for the Union Jack – by ignoring it. The global free market is treated as a kind of endless cricket match that a Britain outside the EU – seen through Faragist goggles – is doomed to win.
Ignoring the bug is hard for Rees-Mogg because of his curious duality as, on the one hand, a member of Parliament performing a rolling re-enactment of steak-and-kidney-pudding Edwardian Britishness and, on the other, as a practitioner of the most weightless form of global capitalism: he’s a founding partner of Somerset Capital Management, a fund management firm that invests almost all its clients’ money outside Britain. Most of it goes to countries like Russia, India and China, known in the finance world as ‘emerging markets’. It’s almost as if there were two Jacobs: Jacob 1, the unworldly, fusty pedant and amateur historian who calls a bus an omnibus, treats Parliament as his London club and is never happier than when he can spend hours in the Commons debating whether a ‘papist’ like himself (he says he likes the term) may marry an heir to the throne; and his doppelgänger, Jacob 2, master of the spreadsheet and the Bloomberg terminal, able to weigh the comparative merits of a Korean microchip manufacturer and a Russian search engine, at ease with the jargon of the world-bestriding MBA class, shrugging off the opening and closing of factories in this or that country as no more than the fluttering of gills on Mammon’s throat.
Rees-Mogg failed in his first tilt at Parliament, running for a working-class Scottish constituency in 1997, but it served as a test run of his insouciant style. He flaunts his expensive education, personal wealth and precociously patrician remoteness from the common man with humour and with even less shame than his opponents instinctively impute to him – that is, with no shame at all. If there was embarrassment in 1997 it was on his behalf, from his class enemies, who found him so ridiculous it was almost a pity to laugh at him. He went canvassing round Fife in a vintage Bentley with his nanny. If he ever managed to get into politics, it was assumed, he would either be mocked into conformity or struck down by the gods of liberal outrage. But those gods don’t have the power they once did. He made it into Parliament in 2010 as Conservative MP for North East Somerset and has been there ever since, stiffening the already near-rigid sinews of the Faragist party within a party.
His maiden speech in Parliament invoked ‘three great Somerset men’ as his models: Alfred the Great, ‘the first Eurosceptic’; the 11th-century anchorite St Alphege, who in Rees-Mogg’s exegesis was England’s first tax martyr; and John Locke, whom he characterised with cynical vagueness as a champion of the people against government. That speech set the key for his parliamentary excursions into history and literature, armed with the kind of cute patriotic simpleness one might have found in a child’s nursery library from the 1890s. He hovers on the edge of self-mockery without committing to it:
I was thinking initially of Achilles sitting in his tent and about whether that was a first example of industrial action …
Let me start with that sad day in March 1603, when our beloved sovereign of blessed memory, Elizabeth, died …
I was concerned about my hon. friend’s attack on the Victorian age, which was one of the finest ages in British history, when most employers were benevolent, kindly, good …
I know that sometimes I bore the House with historical examples, but on this occasion I thought that I would go back to Odysseus …
Queen Elizabeth I … did not need special measures, advancement and protection to get her going; she did it through her own vim and vigour …
Does the lord chancellor recall that in the reign of Henry VIII it was made high treason to take an appeal outside this kingdom? …
I think one can take back the divergence between our legal system and that of the continent to the Fourth Lateran Council.
At times he seems to fall into an eerie timelessness, as if he hadn’t merely been born but was summoned from his enchanted prison on the mantelpiece in the photograph of your grandfather and friends dressed up for a night on the town in 1935. Talking in 2012 about second-hand car dealing, he used as a typical example an imaginary ‘ordinary’ person selling a Morris Minor (last produced in 1972, when Rees-Mogg was three) and buying a Ford Cortina (last produced in 1982). Speaking of strikes in the 1970s, he said: ‘All of us have memories of mass meetings, Red Robbo and the will of the membership being entirely overlooked by terrible abuse of procedure.’ I haven’t checked the archive footage of the meetings chaired by the British Leyland trade union convenor Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, but would I really catch a glimpse there of a peeping child in the colours of Rees-Mogg’s old prep school? At the time Robinson quit the national stage, Rees-Mogg was ten years old.
Rees-Mogg’s adoration of Thatcher – ‘Perhaps the greatest peacetime leader of this country in the past one hundred years or more … there was a golden age when Baroness Thatcher was in charge … 1979, that hallowed year in which the great lady … came to office … the great, almost divine Margaret Thatcher’ – is of a piece with his reverence for the monarchy. He believes the queen gives away too much of her wealth to the nation, and would be within her rights to reject her Civil List payments and reclaim the much larger income from the Crown Estate that now goes to the government:
We want to have a glamorous monarchy that befits the status of our nation. We are a great nation, a noble nation and a nation that has had power across the globe in the past. We have one of the finest histories of any country in the world. When I see the coronation coach being pulled through the streets of London, I want to see it being pulled by the finest horses that money can buy and I want to see it gilded with the finest gold that can be bought … Even though I know that we are in this time of austerity, that we are all in it together and that the Opposition spent all the money, maxed out the credit card and so on, we should look after Her Majesty.
He is scrupulously courteous, even unctuous, towards his fellow MPs, including his political opponents. Counteracting this gentility on a personal level is a crudeness and aggression when he wields patriotism in the abstract:
We want our right to eat our sausages stuffed full of bread and things like that, because when they are, they taste nice. We do not want all this garlic and stuff that we get in foreign sausages … The European Court of Justice is not a proper, honest, decent court, like our courts are … I have never thought that any Briton could ever suffer from xenophobia, because no Briton has ever been frightened of any foreigner … We can have a jolly time in 2015 celebrating the defining moments in European history, which I am glad to say mainly involve the success of the English and, more latterly, the British … The European Union is a state in decay. It is rotten at its very core. It is corrupt. It is dishonest. It is bullying.
In 2007, a few years before Jacob Rees-Mogg became, as the Labour MP Jack Dromey put it, ‘the honourable member for Downton Abbey’, his alter ego Jacob Rees-Mogg set up Somerset Capital Management with two friends, Dominic Johnson and Edward Robertson. Since its foundation SCM, which has a handful of staff in London and Singapore and contracts out most of its back-office functions, has grown to the point where it claims to manage more than $7 billion of other people’s money. Rees-Mogg was comfortably off before, had worked in other people’s fund management firms, came from a prosperous family and attended Eton – his father was editor of the Times – but his share in the fees SCM charges has made him wealthy. In the world of global fund managers, which at the top level has people who actually own, as opposed to manage, billions of dollars in assets, Rees-Mogg is one of the petty rich, but relative to the world as a whole, he’s done very well. Based on his ownership of at least 15 per cent of SCM, and its declared profits in the last two years of £47 million, Channel 4’s Dispatches calculated he would have made £7 million from the firm since the referendum. Rees-Mogg wouldn’t confirm the amount to Dispatches, and Dominic Johnson told the finance news agency Citywire that the figure was inaccurate, but it doesn’t seem implausible. As well as a share of profits Rees-Mogg receives part of a ‘management charge’ that Somerset Capital Management the limited liability partnership – the main firm managing other people’s money – pays each year to Somerset Capital Management the limited company, which in turn is owned by three other limited companies, which in turn are owned by the three founding partners. That £47 million in profits was only paid out after the three founders’ limited company got almost £17 million in fees. To make matters more complicated Somerset Capital Management Ltd is also a partner in Somerset Capital Management the partnership, and SCM has an opaque (to the public) relationship with a vehicle in the Caribbean tax haven of the Cayman Islands, Somerset Capital Management (Cayman) Ltd, owned by Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Robertson. This is all perfectly legal, and one might assume it relates to the entirely legal practice of moving money between jurisdictions in order to pay as little tax as possible, although when I put this to Rees-Mogg in an email, he replied: ‘As I have pointed out before, the Cayman entity does not make any profits and provides no tax advantage to Somerset Capital Management. Furthermore, there is no tax benefit to me as a United Kingdom taxpayer from any of our structures.’
Since his rise to prominence as the informal leader of the hardline Conservative Eurosceptics, and as a cult figure among Faragists in the country as a whole, many have tried to scratch away at the boundary between the two Rees-Mogg identities, between the globetrotting emerging markets player and the British nationalist who treasures a portrait of Charles I made of hair taken from his chopped-off head. Surely there was some hypocrisy, some startling moment of double standards that would force Rees-Mogg to apologise, to admit, faced with the awful glare of public disapproval, that he’d been caught in a conflict of interest? He’s been challenged about SCM’s setting up of daughter funds in Ireland at a time when the firm itself was warning clients of the dangers of a hard Brexit: didn’t that show his faith in the post-Brexit financial stability of Britain was a sham? He’s had to defend himself over SCM’s investment in an Indonesian maker of pills used illegally as an abortifacient: Rees-Mogg is a Catholic fundamentalist who believes abortion is unacceptable even in cases of rape or incest. He’s been accused of unpatriotically investing in Russian companies, and of benefiting financially from the post-Brexit slump in the pound, since almost all SCM’s investments are denominated in other currencies.
None of these revelations has really wounded Rees-Mogg. It helps that he hasn’t been directly involved in investment decisions at SCM since he became an MP in 2010, although he still draws pay as an adviser for about thirty hours a month at £500 an hour, and benefits from the ownership structure I have outlined. His career shows how much like sport British politics has become, where politicians have fans and supporters, rather than voters who are swayed by their arguments or troubled by their extra-parliamentary activities. If you don’t support the Rees-Mogg team, you have no time for him anyway; you’re not going to hate him more. If you’re a fan, it isn’t so important that he should take personal responsibility for making the country better or that he should be morally consistent. What matters is that he lands telling blows on the other team.
I used to share the feeling that there was something contradictory about Rees-Mogg’s elderly Edwardian schoolboy act in Parliament and his cosmopolitan quest for value in the stock markets of the world. Burrowing deep into the facts in search of a gotcha! moment is a vital journalistic endeavour, and may it continue for ever. But having read through years of Rees-Mogg’s voluminous parliamentary speeches and looked at the activities of SCM, I find that the paradigm ‘He says he’s one thing, but actually he’s another’ misses the bigger point, which is that there is no contradiction. Rees-Mogg is out in plain sight. The Rees-Mogg of SCM and the Rees-Mogg of Parliament are facets of a single worldview that shows the actual nature of Faragist Britain. It would be nice to know more about the Cayman SCM vehicle, but Rees-Mogg is quite happy for us to know that he doesn’t think we should be allowed to. He’s spoken out in Parliament in defence of tax avoidance and in favour of British Overseas Territories such as the Caymans keeping their secretive tax haven status. He’s called the proposed ‘Robin Hood tax’ on financial transactions ‘the work of the devil’. What if the thing most in need of examination isn’t a single action SCM has carried out, but the meaning of what SCM does quite openly?
SCM, and hundreds of fund management firms like it, exist because institutions, families and individuals have wealth which they want to turn into lasting power. An individual may want to secure the power to be looked after when he no longer has the power to look after himself, for instance by investing in a pension. A first-generation entrepreneur may want to transmit power to a future dynasty so that her descendants don’t have to work as hard as she did. A trust looking after a charitable bequest may want to preserve, indefinitely, the power to support a cause, or back a newspaper, or run medical research labs. Or the already rich might simply want to stay that way. What SCM does, along with many other emerging market funds just like it, is to protect other people’s money, money that is liable to spoil, or diminish, if simply left in a bank or in precious metal and jewels in a vault. The fund invests it on the owners’ behalf by buying shares in companies around the world that its specialists – including, until he became more hands-off in 2010, Rees-Mogg – deem likely to become more valuable and pay out good dividends. The aim is for the original capital to grow enough to beat inflation and sooner or later provide an excess that can be creamed off and turned into ready money for the client, while still leaving enough for SCM’s fee. (The reason fund managers become so stonkingly rich is that they charge a percentage, rather than a flat fee, the implicit assumption being that £1 million is orders of magnitude more difficult to invest wisely than £10,000. But unlike other percentage-based arrangements, such as house sales or the talent business, in this case the fund manager keeps on getting his percentage year after year, long after an investment is made, even if the investment shrinks.)
The founders of SCM were able to kick-start their partnership thanks to clients who knew them from their previous jobs in fund management. The firm was initially incubated within the hedge fund run by their pro-Brexit friend Crispin Odey, the ex-son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch. Thanks to those earlier contacts it picked up a mandate to manage money for the $5 billion Alfred I Dupont Testamentary Trust, set up in 1935 with a bequest from the eponymous gunpowder maker to support the Nemours network of children’s hospitals in the US. It was entrusted with capital from the Superannuation Investments Corporation of Canada, responsible for the pensions pot of public employees in the province of Manitoba. In 2014 SCM picked up one of its biggest clients, the State Board of Administration of Florida, which does the same job in the Sunshine State. The money SCM manages for past and present Florida state employees is a drop in the ocean of the SBA’s $200 billion assets, but for SCM, it’s huge – $940 million. SCM manages or has managed money for Prince Charles, the Dunhill Medical Trust, the Foyle Foundation (set up by the family behind Foyles bookshops), the Health Foundation and the Institution of Civil Engineers.
More than half the money SCM invests goes to five countries: India, Russia, South Korea, China and Taiwan. One per cent is invested in Britain. These are the top ten holdings in SCM’s biggest sub-fund, Somerset Emerging Markets Dividend Growth: SK Hynix, a Korean chip maker; Sberbank, the Russian part of the former Soviet state savings bank, now privatised; Compañía de Cervecerías Unidas, Chile’s largest brewer; Kweichow Moutai, Chinese distillers of a luxury sorghum spirit favoured for gifts and hospitality by Communist Party officials; OTP, a privatised Hungarian savings bank; Housing Development Finance Corporation, an Indian financial conglomerate; the giant Korean multinational Samsung; the Indian car and motorbike maker Maruti Suzuki, a subsidiary of Suzuki of Japan; the Russian supermarket and convenience store chain X5 Retail, listed in both London and Moscow; and AmBev, a Brazilian brewer that belongs to a larger Belgian-based global booze empire called AnheuserBusch InBev.
The names tell a story of how favourable the present age of global finance has been to companies like Rees-Mogg’s SCM. Privatisation has opened up great swathes of the world economy to those with ready capital to tap into it for returns. Tech firms in countries like India and South Korea prosper from the ability to arbitrage labour costs to the disbenefit of Western European economies with expensive health and welfare systems. In countries with ‘emerging markets’, present-day economic orthodoxy, privileging privately owned business and individual consumption over communally funded universal networks, offers better-off workers spending money for booze, the supermarket shop and maybe a car loan and a mortgage, rather than education, healthcare and municipal housing for all. In the rich countries the same orthodoxy pushes the middle classes into saving to pay for services they used to get via taxation. Traditional ways of protecting savings from inflation – lending money to governments or municipalities in the form of bonds, or putting cash in a savings account – no longer work at a time when interest rates are very low; this is what currently makes global stock markets so attractive. Meanwhile, across the Anglosphere, tax and pension systems have been configured in a way that inevitably pushes people into using the services of fund managers like SCM. As a self-employed writer living in Britain, I’m rewarded generously by the tax system if I save through fund managers. If I relied on the state pension, as millions of people in Britain nearing retirement have no choice but to do, I’d be living in old age on less than the minimum wage.
Faragism still seems likely to founder eventually on that bug in the Thatcher system: how can you simultaneously wave the patriotic flag of defence of the realm while lowering the living standards of the poorer part of the population in the name of free trade? But it’s worth looking closely at the parliamentary utterances of Rees-Mogg to understand how Faragism differs from neoliberalism, and to form an idea of how a Faragist believes the Thatcher bug can be overcome. One sign of how someone like Rees-Mogg thinks it may work stood out during that first political foray in Fife: while his enemies waited in vain for him to show remorse for being so self-consciously posh, his supporters seem to have parsed this very insouciance, this lack of humility, as sincerity. That same insouciance led to his least dignified moment in Parliament, during a debate on the bedroom tax, a proposed measure that, among other things, threatened disabled people with eviction after the death of a partner. Referring to his ‘relatively straitened circumstances’, Rees-Mogg joked: ‘My house in London has four bedrooms with seven people living in it, three adults and four children, so I think that I meet the requirements for maximum occupancy and would not be expected to give up a single room.’[*] Given that one of the adults was the nanny, and that he also owns a six-bedroom manor house in the Mendips, the gag was chillingly unfunny. But it was characteristic of Rees-Mogg’s relentless support for austerity, for lower taxes and less public spending in general, combined with a brazen lack of interest in the consequences for the losers-out.
Concentration on his hostility towards the EU has distracted attention from the extremity of his views on the economy. He holds a quasi-mystical belief about the difference between private spending, which he deems fertile, and public spending, which is sterile. Per Rees-Mogg, a private school is an investment, an asset, and contributes to growth; a state school isn’t, and doesn’t. A private nurse’s salary is part of a vibrant, growing economy; a state nurse’s salary is a dead weight. Paying taxes to the government in exchange for services stifles the economy; paying fees to a private company for services makes it blossom. Strangest of all is his claim that spending and saving by rich people is somehow better for society than spending and saving by the non-rich.
By and large, hedge fund managers and corporate tycoons spend their money, and if they do not spend it they save it … if they spend money, they create employment and economic activity, and if they save it and put it in a bank, they provide the deposits against which banks can lend … We want more billionaires, because billionaires spend money.
Rees-Mogg’s ideal Britain seems to be one of permanent government austerity, a low-tax skinny state. In his first five years in Parliament, before the EU became his all-consuming passion, he mentioned Joseph of Arimathea as many times (three) as he mentioned the NHS. As well as advocating fiercely low taxes he yearns for Britain to drop all subsidies – including for farmers – and all tariffs on imports, regardless of whether our trading partners reciprocate. ‘One-way free trade encourages efficiency in the home economy,’ he has said.
On the face of it, this kind of full-throated neoliberalism is the perfect expression of that original Thatcherite flaw: you can speak as patriotically as you like, but if your patriotism involves throttling your country’s hospitals with spending cuts and standing idly by while better educated, lower paid, worse-treated workforces overseas trash your farmers and lay domestic industry to waste, people are bound to ask: ‘Remind me how this is patriotic again?’ Rees-Mogg’s very Thatcherite belief that what a Britain laid low by the global free market needs is more global free market is at odds with the short-term political calculations of Johnson and Farage. Already looking to a time when the stuffing is beginning to come out of the EU scapegoat, the other Faragists talk not only of tax cuts, but of increases in public spending; it’s hard to imagine that a future post-Brexit Faragist government wouldn’t yield to the temptation to protect and even subsidise parts of the British economy.
All this might sound like a forecast that a future Faragist ruling group would rapidly be brought down by the Thatcher bug. This is likely. But it is also possible to interpret Rees-Mogg’s personal resolution of the Thatcherite contradiction in a way that lays out a different course. Ultra-low tax, a starveling state, zero tariffs and zero subsidies is his ideal, but he’s quite prepared to depart from his ideals for the sake of political expediency provided the model is one of quickie patronage for a client group, rather than open-ended, communally funded universal provision as a principle. There’s no other way to explain his enthusiasm for his party’s genuinely vile and wasteful policy of Help to Buy, which spews public funds into the pockets of private housebuilding firms by luring people who don’t actually need the money into taking a state-subsidised loan to buy houses whose price (but not future value) is artificially inflated by the very loan that’s supposed to help them.
Short-term tax breaks and giveaways from public funds for client groups whose votes you hope to win, combined with a determination to scapegoat and squeeze minorities and the ‘undeserving’ poor, is the very essence of populism. So is the assumption that patriotic-cultural gestures and spectacles like the launching of aircraft carriers or the birth of royal children will serve as compensation for mean lives. The Faragist twist is that while Johnson may be a self-centred cynic, as his enemies portray him, others in the future elite, like Rees-Mogg and Farage himself, genuinely believe in the sacramental character of these spectacles. The Faragist skinny state is unlike the neoliberal skinny state in that it isn’t simply about cutting public spending and taxes, but about a polarisation of resources, helping the culturally favoured with shallow buy-offs like Help to Buy, grammar schools or new houses for non-immigrants only (a Ukip policy). It’s about boosting a certain psychogeography of heritage while letting other realms wither: no to overseas aid, yes to a new royal yacht. In the early outlines of Faragism you can glimpse an ideology rather like Putin’s Russia: a low-tax, high-inequality consumer capitalist society that offers a trickle-down cascade of patronage, demonisation of outsiders and militarist-nostalgist spectacle as a substitute for common wealth.
Russia and the UK both tend to sacramentalise the Second World War. Nostalgists in each country hallow a previous age: in Russia a lost Soviet paradise, in Britain an empire. You wouldn’t treat the Victorian age as glorious if you didn’t feel that a significant part of the population living wretched lives was quite compatible with national success. And you wouldn’t invoke the greatness of empire in a debate about the regulation of seabed mining, as Rees-Mogg did, unless you wanted to cast your own overseas ventures as modern versions of that bleak imperial compensation for the Victorian poor, a sense of racial superiority and a grandstanding on ‘our’ daring land grabs:
That is an exciting way of looking at it: to adopt a real free-market approach, which allows companies to go out to prospect, as they did in California in the 19th century, and as Cecil Rhodes did when he went to South Africa. He found great acres of space and he made a claim and he dug and he dug and he dug, and he found gold, diamonds and platinum, and he put them into a great company, and he made millions – in modern money, billions – of pounds by doing that. That was not through state regulation, not through international bodies, not through the United Nations reaching an agreement to say, ‘You may do this,’ or ‘You may do that,’ but by enterprise, hard work and energy – by all those great British virtues of which we should be so proud. Why not say that of the oceans?
There’s a moral complexity to the activities of fund management firms like SCM that repels glib characterisation. Is the transfer of power, in the form of investment capital, from richer countries like Britain to developing countries like China and Brazil a kind of justice (the former underclass of imperialism draining power from the imperialists), or is it a form of neo-imperialist exploitation, given that the profits bounce back to the rich world? Is richer world to poorer world investment beneficial, helping less developed countries build up their economies and universal networks, or is it harmful, mainly benefiting foreign investors and local oligopolistic cliques? As the poorest of the poor are lifted out of poverty and the poor of rich countries endure hard times, is the net result for the world a higher median of prosperity, or a lower? Are the fund managers willing enablers of climate-harmful investment, or, should their clients insist, potential obstacles to it?
These are questions that would be faced by a global organisation of a kind that doesn’t exist: a kind of EU for the world, with powers the United Nations only dreams of. This is the worst nightmare of the Faragists. But the strange truth is that Rees-Mogg already embodies an alternative version of planetary governance. His seemingly contradictory dual identity achieves harmony through his tacit offer of an exclusive national (that is, white English) cultural autonomy at home combined with a loose, informal world government of capitalist rights (secure property ownership, freedom to move and conceal money) in which a guild of highly paid private bureaucrats like him – managing other people’s capital and personally sheltered from, even benefiting from, economic crashes in their own countries – also accrue great power. They will, through investing pension pots and capital, take the laboriously pooled power of a group of Florida teachers or Winnipeg firemen and decide where in the world to apply it: Ulan Bator, Lima or Wigan. Along the way, almost by the way, they claim to be able to solve the injustices of the world – without government, without regulation.
‘I confess that in one of my company visits,’ Rees-Mogg told Parliament in 2012,
I was suspicious that the company did indeed use child labour. The business was a very attractive one, but I thought that my clients, and the pension fundholders they represented and the charities they served, would be appalled to be making money on the backs of children … companies that fail to follow the basics of humanity will be embarrassed in their marketing. They will be brought to shame in front of the nation if it is discovered that they are using child labour or slave labour in the production of their goods. That will bring the crack of the economic whip on their profits, which is a very good means of ensuring that companies behave better.
If everyone is satisfied with this demonstration that child slavery may be got rid of organically, by the market, without burdensome regulation, we may now devote our full attention to the magnificent sight of the golden royal coach.
[*] He has since fathered two more children, and bought a larger London residence.