So there is a delicious irony that Mr Rees-Mogg has produced a book entitled The Victorians, 12 Titans Who Forged Britain. It marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth last Friday which was also the Conservative MP for North East Somerset’s 50th. “Had I been a girl I would have been called Victoria after her,” he says. Putting aside the history, there is clearly a political message in the book. Brexit is not the subject, yet it defines the narrative as a vision of not just what was but what could be. Anybody who has heard a Rees-Mogg speech will recognise his voice.
There are chapters on politicians Sir Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, William Glad-stone, and Ben-jamin Disraeli; imperial administrators General Sir Charles Napier, William Sleeman and Charles Gordon (of Khartoum); constitutional philosopher Albert Dicey; “God’s Architect” Augustus Pugin; sporting superstar WG Grace; and Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.
The belief that great people are needed to change the world lies at the book’s heart.
“History is made up of individuals, it is what individuals do that determines the fate of nations rather than happenstance or pure fate,” he notes.
But it is not just the people, it is a psyche that has mostly been lost.
“People in the Victorian era were positive and psychologically in the second Elizabethan era people have been very cautious. The Victorians certainly didn’t believe in managing decline. They thought that all problems were solvable and that you just needed to have some energy and drive and sense of purpose and you could do great things. They had enormous optimism.”
Of modern leaders, only Margaret Thatcher reclaimed the “optimism” of the Victorians.
“Margaret Thatcher had this can-do attitude in that she thought the future was going to be a successful one.
“I feel we have seen very much in this Government in relation to Brexit a feeling that they are making the best of a bad job instead of embracing something that is really exciting. A safety first approach.”
Looking at the “patriotic, big political figures who understood the mood of the country” Palmerston and Disraeli, he notes: “I think either of them would have seen the opportunities in Brexit in making our own way and standing up for what we wanted to do and pushing strongly for British interests.”
The desire for an open approach to the world is underlined in a chapter on the only non-Briton – Prince Albert, and his Great Exhibition.
“The Great Exhibition was a very forward-looking event where he wanted to bring together the successes of the whole world and say that we might be great but we could do even better if we looked at what other countries are doing.”
He also pointedly refers to the Victorians’ moral clarity. He calls Sleeman “remarkable” for putting down the Thuggees who terrorised India and gave their name to our word thug.
He highlights General Napier, who largely put an end to the practice of widows being burnt alive in India.
“I paraphrase but there’s a tremendous line from Napier, ‘You have a practice of burning widows and we have a practice of hanging people who burn widows. You get on with your practices and we will get on with ours’.”
Mr Rees-Mogg sees the book as a reply to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, from 1918, which shaped a negative view of the age.
Peel, Palmerston and Disraeli are Mr Rees-Mogg’s heroes but Dicey, the constitutional expert, is the one he feels closest to.
Both articulate obscure constitutional points in a way that not only helps one understand but appreciate them.
There is a sense that while Mr Rees-Mogg wants to “recapture the optimism” of the Victorian era he wants these titans to be judged within the context of their time.
Take Gordon, who brought down Gladstone’s government when he was killed in Khartoum in 1885.
“Gordon was an immense star. When he died, statues were erected throughout the Empire and now if you went into most schools you would find almost no young people had heard of this powerful, dynamic figure.”
He concludes, fittingly, with Queen Victoria, whom he calls the Pole Star.
He feels we should thank her and her subjects for managing to “hold off barbarism, decline and defeat”.
It is obvious he hopes Britain will reclaim these values. The book is not simply a foray into the past but shines a light on what our nation could be…
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