On Friday 27th October at 12:15, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset was welcomed to campus in the Chancellor’s Building by the President of the Bath University Conservative Association (BUCA), Ronaldo Brutus. Declared as an opportunity to understand the fundamentals of conservatism, Brutus highlighted this first Conservative event of the year as a promising starting point for their program, stating in his interview with University Radio Bath (URB) that a visit to the campus from Rees-Mogg would have a “positive impact” from a “well-known” MP (Member of Parliament), believing that a potentially polarising and far-right wing Conservative would be the “right choice for our first talk of the year”. While this is up to debate, opinions must be respected, and while Rees-Mogg’s political agenda is rather disputed among Conservatives and the Opposition alike, it offers students and staff the chance to hear from a prominent MP in person, and to either educate themselves on Conservative Party views or understand the opposition more, depending on their political background.
Following a quick sign-in process and security check, all spectators patiently waited to be ushered into CB 1.10 to await Rees-Mogg’s entrance. With a particularly left-wing demographic on our campus, it is no surprise that an alternative event was held at the same time on Chancellor’s Green, expressing the views of our progressive and liberal majority. The Mogg-Off opposition event was an appropriate way to respect freedom of speech for BUCA while also making their own voices heard, attracting multiple societies as well as many students eager to witness this inclusive event. In this vein, it may be interesting to learn that the supposed ‘packed’ audience, who were unable to be accommodated within the Rees-Mogg event itself, was actually much smaller than anticipated, with approximately 30-40 participants.
A rather enthusiastic Ronaldo Brutus then introduced our speaker as the man “at the forefront of Conservative politics”, a rather worrying introduction for us Left-wing/Centre-left reporters in the back row, who were then questioning the accuracy behind this statement, and whether BUCA really want to be seen as standing behind it. Following energetic applause, Sir Rees-Mogg began his 20-minute speech by praising each and every one of us – students – as well as the notable work of the University of Bath and its current standing in the British University League tables. Having charmed us (it was debatable as to who was convinced by this), it was time to get into the thick of it – to discuss the nitty-gritty business of what a Conservative believes.
The fundamental idea that Rees-Mogg stressed was that Conservatism is characterised by having the freedom to do what you choose, wherein the MP or politician acts as the “enabler of making that choice”. As we will learn from the following Q&A session, this initial concept from a well-known reactionary figure was a little hard to swallow for some of the audience.
Nevertheless, Rees-Mogg went on to explain the importance of the student within society, explaining that the Conservative Party support student loans because they want us as a consumer to have the freedom to educate ourselves how we like, ultimately choosing us, for we students are the “elites” of society who will decide the future of our British bubble-wrapped imagined community.
Rees-Mogg also stressed the fact that having autonomy over our money will lead us to make better decisions, as the choices we make are our own, both motivated and unforced. It is this that will shape the economy and improve it, thus highlighting the necessity to both uphold well-known Conservative values of the freedom of the individual, and less government interference (a bottom-up approach rather than top-down).
Following this empowerment of the individual, he explained the reasoning behind Conservative Party decisions, particularly how multiple housing reforms have been implemented, but are still one of their greatest challenges as more migration is occurring (a reason for Brexit?). However, they are seeking to meet the demands of the population despite this. He also briefly highlighted Conservative Party welfare reforms, including the implementation of Universal Credit, focusing on the “real people” where low-income households receive childcare, housing and standard benefits to meet their individual needs. Within this descriptive piece, he defended low taxation, maintaining that the state should take as much as needed to cover public services, BUT can’t spend our money better than we can.
So what can be done? He envisaged the UK as a place where the individual will be more effective in spending their money than the bureaucracy, once again attributing the success of the constitution to the centrality of the individual (but who really wins in this gift-wrapped utopia? Not the “real people”, that’s for sure). And, let’s take it back to the fact that students should thank the Conservatives, for they opened up the opportunity to be at university, to be one of the “elite” (let’s not forget that attending public university was free up until 1998).
This overview in itself was a fitting way to show the basic groundwork of what Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg believes is at the heart of conservatism, even if the Opposition does not. It was light, had a sprinkle of humour for comic relief, and avoided any political shortcomings of the Conservative Party. It was my first time hearing a well-known politician speak in person, and it was everything I thought it would be: professional, simple and concise – exactly what you would expect from an Eton alumna and Oxford University fellow, a debate genius.
Next came the much-awaited 40-minute (!!!) Q&A session, where Brutus instructed that questions be short and related to the speech we had just heard. But of course, the questions that were asked did not fit the brief, not with this great opportunity to question a politician who holds such staunch uncompromising views on very current social issues…
To start it off, we heard from a member of the audience who challenged whether the freedom of the individual is actually represented in Rees-Mogg’s conservatism, considering he opposes gay marriage – a question met with great approval from the audience. This is where the opinions of Rees-Mogg were truly uncovered, as whispers and comments around the room as well as the questions that followed all implied that a large majority of the spectators came to do battle – a proud moment for the Opposition.
I applaud Rees-Mogg on his ability to hold his own – as any MP probably should – but even so, it’s no mean feat to answer question after question criticising one’s agenda with no ceasefire in sight.
Tapping into the controversy, Rees-Mogg stressed the importance of gay rights (of the individual) but is defiant when it comes to gay marriage, emphasising the “sanctity of marriage”, a sacrament that has been commanded by a higher authority. In his opinion, the state should have no say in this concept at all.
Another member of the audience challenged him on his opinions on the transgender athlete, and whether transwomen should be allowed to compete in female competitions. Rees-Mogg also talked about the freedom of speech here, and that asking him these questions was completely valid, encouraging polemic issues to be asked about, which I believe was much to the dissatisfaction of the BUCA President, whose consistent reminders for questions to be short and speech-related was the most displeasing part of the event.
Rees-Mogg’s answer was also structured very similarly to his previous answer, supporting transgender people in their right to transition, but he hits a moral wall when it comes to fairness. Starting with how equestrian is a sport where gender is not an issue, ‘fairness’ is achieved through measuring the ability of the horse and not the human. Other sports, however, are based on the capacity of the man or woman, where biologically speaking, he implied that man has a distinctive advantage against a female in her competition, and a woman could never be equal to that. He also continues to explain that, yes, he does support transitions for transmen and transwomen, but distinguishes them from those who ‘choose’ to adopt an identity, but remain male-bodied; they should not be allowed to go to female-only prisons. Not only does this not support the transgender community, he doesn’t even consider transmen in male competitions.
The questions which followed also criticised government spending, taxation and housing reforms, where Rees-Mogg agreed that the government has spent money badly, exemplified by HS2. He acknowledges that taxation is at its highest now, something he does not support, but when asked about benefits towards disabled people, he stated that benefits have increased, despite his known opposition to welfare and disabled benefits.
A few more interesting explanations from Rees-Mogg (with our own countered argument):
- Brexit and its effect on students: he ignored its shortcomings and stated how important Brexit was, because, while you can vote in a government in the UK, you can’t remove the European Commission and we are all subject to European law. Control of our democracy, but to what extent, just to be barred from the single market, lack of funding for students who would like to work abroad and fewer opportunities.
- Abortion: he stated that there are two lives involved, and the idea of aborting up to full term is immoral, as a child could be born the next day, even in the case of rape or incest. He agreed that abortion allowed in this context is a “cult of death” and having a law allowing people to abort a disabled child who is capable of living outside the womb is unacceptable. Can we just consider the 2017 revelation that his fund Somerset Capital Management has invested in the Indonesian firm, Kalbe Firma, profiting off the sale of pills for stomach ulcers, but which are also known to trigger abortions?
- Reasons, or excuses, for the state of the current economy: the financial crisis, COVID-19, and the Ukraine war.
To finish off the session, Rees-Mogg stressed the importance of separating hate from disagreement. He stressed that he does not dislike the Opposition but rather disagrees with them on policies. One to remember is Rees-Mogg stating that Sir Keir Starmer is “not a charismatic man” and he is a “bit dull” – I mean, such comments are to be expected seeing as they have diverging political agendas, right? He then further talked about his love for campaigning and encouraged us all to get involved in this, whether to support the Conservative Party or not, because you never know who you will meet…
All in all, it was a rather informative experience, and I think everyone took something away from it. Whether it confirmed suspicions or gave people something new to think about, the talk was definitely not just for Conservatives. As it turned out, challenging Rees-Mogg rather than supporting him seemed to be the rule at this event.