Clowns can be dangerous, in some cases very dangerous.
Just consider three of the politicians who have ridden to fame on the bandwagon of Brexit, Britain’s self-ejection from the European Union. Each of them has used the trick of sanitizing egregious ideas by appearing to be engagingly clownish and eccentric.
First there was Nigel Farage whose United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, whipped up the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria that was decisive in swinging the referendum that narrowly triggered Brexit in 2016.
Farage has retreated from his role in UKIP but can now be found happily mingling with right-wing nutters from Europe to Australia, regarded as a model of how to play the card of white supremacy without actually using those words. Farage groomed his own disarming persona in the classic pose of a grinning, beer-swilling pub-loving everyman taking on the British ruling class and winning.
Second came Boris Johnson, a brilliant self-promoter who moved from being the mayor of London to the upper ranks of the Tory party and cynically chose to use Brexit as a path to becoming prime minister at any cost. That came unstuck when Prime Minister Theresa May appointed him foreign secretary, a role that, instead of demonstrating his gifts, exposed his inner shallowness, and he now lurks on the fringes, still dangerous but far less credible as a challenger.
Now there is the newest, and youngest, of them, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is the most skillful dissembler of them all. As May enters a perilous period in which she attempts to sell her party on her Brexit deal with the European Union, Rees-Mogg is leading a move to remove her with a formal motion of “no confidence”—so far lacking sufficient backers, but a nakedly hostile intent.
Rees-Mogg originally came to notice because of his shameless pose as a slightly deranged young toff, campaigning for election with his former nanny as company, tailored always in the most formal of double-breasted suits, barbered like a Harry Potter cohort and speaking in a clipped, condescending way. But the numerous Little Englanders in the Tory party buy his blend of erudition and lofty life style, as well as his aversion to abortion and same-sex marriage.
I can reveal that he is not the first Rees-Mogg to try to influence a change of prime minister. As it happens, I knew another, his father William Rees-Mogg.
This Rees-Mogg was deputy editor of the London Sunday Times. In the fall of 1963 the standing of the then-prime minister, Harold Macmillan, had been severely weakened by his poor handling of the year’s great political scandal, the Profumo Affair, in which the defense minister shared a mistress with a Russian spy. Macmillan fell ill and, while he was in hospital, consented to give way as party leader and prime minister. (No national election was required, the party made the choice.)
I headed up the paper’s investigative reporting team and we found out that Macmillan had already secretly arranged his own succession. The party vote was a sham. But who was this successor?
William Rees-Mogg had close ties to a younger faction in the party but he was unable to uncover the name. With a colleague I went to 10 Downing Street to see a source we had who was very close to Macmillan. He gave us the name.
It was a Tuesday. Getting a great political scoop on a Tuesday when you work for a Sunday newspaper is just about the most maddening thing that can happen to a reporter. It would not keep. The change of prime ministers would take place on the Friday. The first person I delivered the scoop to was Rees-Mogg. He turned a deathly pale and, with an intake of breath, said, “This is outrageous. It must be stopped.”
Rees-Mogg wrote the paper’s editorials (in longhand) and saw himself as a major influence on the future of the Tories. Macmillan had chosen Sir Alec Douglas-Home, certainly an unexpected and capricious choice, a member of the landed gentry of unspectacular gifts—but, in the circumstances, the one candidate able to reconcile opposing groups.
Rees-Mogg did not agree and was serious about stopping it. He set up a midnight meeting that included some of Macmillan’s cabinet who had not been told of the choice. Their choice was a patrician party elder, Rab Butler.
Butler had a reputation as a progressive, but was fatally stained by his behavior in June 1940, when Winston Churchill was new to office in the country’s darkest hour. Butler, as an undersecretary to the foreign minister, Lord Halifax, was linked to a plot among appeasers to replace Churchill with Halifax, who still thought a deal could be made with Hitler.
The old guard of the Conservative party—and the Churchill family—had never forgiven Butler. He was, in effect, forever blackballed as a possible leader.
Rees-Mogg did not think this would stick, but it did. Home became prime minister.
But there is a long tail to this story, taking it all the way to Brexit. Rees-Mogg’s midnight cabal met at the house of a junior cabinet minister, Enoch Powell.
Powell was another in the line of erudite eccentrics. He appeared as the epitome of the unbending English gent, even on the hottest of days wearing a three-piece suit and a Homburg hat, always with glacial composure, skin parchment white, the only warning note a hard glint in the eye. He prided himself on his scholarship, a translator of Herodotus, admirer of the richness of ancient Greek civilization.
His career motored on without gaining particular notice until a night in April 1968 when he delivered a speech that has since become notorious as a harbinger of a revival of open racism. Powell was responding to complaints from constituents that immigrants from the Caribbean and Asia were competing for jobs and changing the culture of neighborhoods.
“We must be mad, literally mad,” Powell declared, “as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents… it is like a nation busily engaging in heaping up its own funeral pyre… as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
It became known as the “river of blood” speech and Powell neither disowned nor apologized for it. “It is a subject that found me: I didn’t go looking for it,” he said, and framed his allegiance in the cause in the same way that, decades later, Farage would echo: “The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming.”
But ugly racism in Britain long preceded the 1960s’ wave of immigrants.
Before World War I there was a strain of extreme and cranky nationalism that pursued the phantom of an international conspiracy of Jewish financiers. (Just as George Soros has been used, with the help of Facebook, as code for a similar conspiracy.)
These propagandists included the Roman Catholic novelists and pamphleteers, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The playwright Bernard Shaw called them “Chesterbelloc,” a two-headed monster. Behind their hysteria was a struggle between old money and new, the established English gentry and the risen Edwardian plutocracy. Their basest sin was to find a scapegoat for their prejudice in a simple-minded anti-Semitism.
Between the wars this strain of anti-Semitism fused with the formal fascism of those Britons, and there were many, who fell under the spell of Mussolini and Hitler. This movement peaked in Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and the Anglo-German Friendship League.
Pressure from these sources reached the British cabinet even after war was declared against Hitler. A group of eight Conservative peers (not those gathered by Lord Halifax) blamed the war on Jewish-controlled newspapers, and wanted to appease the Nazis. Churchill swiftly rejected them, but the sentiment did not disappear. It lay dormant, like an incubating virus.
It finally broke the surface again in the early 1960s, long before Powell made his speech.
The catalyst was a group named the League of Empire Loyalists, founded by A. K. Chesterton, a cousin of the novelist G.K. and formerly a founder member of Mosley’s fascists. Initially the League was seen as a minority crackpot faction of the Conservative party, resenting the party’s abandonment of empire, but in 1962 one of the League’s organizers, a thug named Colin Jordan, quit to form the British National Socialist Movement.
It seemed like an obnoxious but lame-duck rerun of Mosley, with the Nazi uniforms and the old Nordic chant: “The only basis for Britain’s future greatness is Aryan, predominantly Nordic blood. It is the first duty of the state to protect this blood.”
In fact, the state’s response was to slap Jordan in jail for leading a paramilitary movement. His surviving lieutenants learned the lesson. They moved with less noise and more purpose toward a new target, immigrants.
By 1966 several splinter groups, plus the League of Empire Loyalists, merged into a new bloc named the National Front. Front members went to Germany for reunions of ex-members of Hitler’s S.S. The Germans referred to the Front’s leader, John Tyndall, as the Fuhrer.
By the 1970s, helped on its way indirectly by Powell’s hate-mongering (the Conservatives had always had a small rump of racists for whom Powell suddenly found himself a hero, almost like a lost leader), the Front had around 10,000 members and was able to win up to 20 percent of the vote in local elections where immigration was an issue.
Unconscious of his implied nostalgia, an ageing Sir Oswald Mosley dismissed the Front as “dwarfs masquerading in the uniform of dead giants.”
And, indeed, the Front never broke out of its hardcore base and, until Nigel Farage appeared, Britain appeared to be successfully evolving into a multi-cultural nation without succumbing to dreams of a lost imperial role and an imagined racial purity.
Farage, Johnson and Rees-Mogg have all tapped into a toxic nostalgia in which the European Union was cast as a kind of polyglot monster that subjugated a once-glorious British apartness—wanting to restore the moat of the English Channel as the line between them and “the other.”
Sometimes Johnson has sounded like a retired colonial administrator with a tin ear: running for mayor he referred to blacks as “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles”, and more recently, resenting President Obama’s alarm at the Brexit campaign, talked of Obama’s “partly Kenyan heritage” and suggested that this was tied to a hostility to the British empire. But, as usual with Johnson, these remarks were not the accidental words of a buffoon, but deliberate signals to attract the far right.
Rees-Mogg doesn’t need to use that kind of language. Dubbed “the honorable member for the 18th century” he understands the appeal of his shameless atavism, and never mind that this automatically attracts all the bigots who, like Enoch Powell, think the island race lost its way as soon as it gave up its whiteness.
This egregious trio are not just clowns. They are really pernicious con-artists seeking self-advancement over decency.
The joke is, if there is one, that nobody can ever really define the national heritage that they so casually invoke. It begins somewhere in the fluvial bloodbaths where Angles first mixed with Saxons and gave a name, Anglo-Saxon, to a race that colonized the island, survived a Roman invasion but succumbed to the Normans. In this there is supposed to be a spring of racial purity. There is no shrine to mark it, no Mount of Olives. The mists of folklore obscure it. Perhaps it is not a time or a place at all, but just something felt in the fantasy of a lost world that never really existed.