Protesting nuns, Labour defection, and Andre Previn story

Protesting nuns, Labour defection, and Andre Previn story

The Rise of Rees-Mogg: An American Figure in the British Political Scene


In 1984-5, during my time in the vibrant protest scene in San Francisco’s Bay Area, I encountered protesters dressed as nuns. Sister Mary Boom Boom and her fellow Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were a regular sight. Fast forward to the present day, and I found myself face to face with another nun-protester, this time in London. Her concerns mirrored those of the American nuns – the fear that the right-wing is stripping away the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community and women, while attempting to reinstate an oppressive patriarchal society. Perhaps it is my observation of this nun’s protest that made me realize that Jacob Rees-Mogg, despite his love for all things English, is more of an American figure.

Rees-Mogg is a unique figure in British politics. He combines an unwavering belief in free-market capitalism with a steadfast commitment to traditional, conservative values. Unlike most British Thatcherites who identify as both economic and social liberals, Rees-Mogg’s views on marriage and abortion align more closely with the American moral majority. Furthermore, he embraces the same political tactics that led to the downfall of Newt Gingrich in the United States in the 1990s. Rees-Mogg is willing to lead a party-within-a-party, understands the media’s thirst for sensationalism, and is unafraid to bend, or even break, the unwritten rules of politics to pursue his ideological vision. Interestingly, he shares Gingrich’s fondness for eccentric interpretations of history.

Rees-Mogg’s enthusiastic embrace of traditional morality presents a unique challenge for a British politician when compared to his American counterparts. While the audience at the London Palladium cheered when he defended his record as a successful financial entrepreneur, the same enthusiasm waned when Fraser Nelson pressed him on abortion rights. In America, public opinion on this divisive issue may be split, but in Britain, the majority stands with the protesting “nun.” This stark contrast emphasizes the hurdles Rees-Mogg faces in promoting his conservative agenda within the British political landscape.

The Frenzy of British Politics: The Dangers of Fake News and Missed Opportunities

The current state of British politics is undeniably frenzied, with politicians inadvertently falling victim to the creation of fake news stories. An incident involving Hilary Benn exemplifies this issue. On February 25th, Benn conducted a briefing on Brexit for a group near the House of Commons. As he exited the building, he was unexpectedly bombarded by flashing cameras and eager journalists. What had sparked the commotion? The newly-formed Independent Group of MPs, informally known as the Tiggers, was holding their inaugural meeting in the same building. The journalists hoped for fresh defections from Labour, and Benn, being a prominent figure in the moderate faction, would have represented a significant blow to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However, their prayers went unanswered, and Benn did not defect.

Another anecdote that comes to mind is my brief acquaintance with John Whitehead, an epitome of the old-WASP American establishment. Whitehead, having held positions of influence in Goldman Sachs and the Reagan administration, shared an amusing story about mistaken identities. During a flight from New York to London on the Concorde, Whitehead found himself seated next to a man he presumed to be Andre Previn. As they conversed, Whitehead praised the man’s musical talents, believing him to be the acclaimed composer and conductor. Only upon descent did “Previn” reveal himself as none other than the legendary Paul McCartney.

These anecdotes illuminate both the unexpected nature of political events and the amusing moments that can arise from mistaken assumptions. They remind us of the unpredictable twists and turns that occur in the realm of politics, often defying expectations and providing a dose of humor in the process.

The Depressing State of Historical Studies and the Need for Revival

Amidst the current wave of bleak news, ranging from the complexities of Brexit and the looming war between India and Pakistan to the scandals surrounding President Trump, I find myself particularly disheartened by the state of academic history. Max Boot’s op-ed in the Washington Post sheds light on the decline in the number of graduate degrees granted in history, as well as the diminishing interest in history as a major among undergraduate students. These trends hold true not only in America but also in Britain.

Boot highlights two factors contributing to this decline: a shift towards esoteric academic debates, removing history from the public sphere, and an obsession with cultural, social, and gender history, often overshadowing traditional narratives. In Britain, we can observe a similar pattern, with a decrease in students pursuing degrees in historical and philosophical studies and languages that incorporate historical components. The focus on marginalized groups and cultural studies was initially a valuable correction to a history curriculum that overwhelmingly emphasized the achievements of white men, particularly in politics. However, this correction has now transformed into an orthodoxy, causing many history departments to prioritize the so-called “marginal” rather than exploring the broader and more gripping questions that once defined the curriculum.

To revive historical studies, a different form of decolonization is needed: freeing the curriculum from the influence of thinkers fixated on Foucault and Fanon and refocusing on the significant questions that were historically at the core of the discipline. How can power be restrained by constitutional arrangements? What are the prevailing narrative threads in British history? What role have extraordinary individuals played in shaping events? The current historiographical ideas that claim novelty are, in reality, aging concepts that fail to captivate today’s students. By reintroducing a curriculum centered on these enduring questions, we can reignite interest and enthusiasm for historical studies.

Overall, while there may be much to be depressed about in the current state of affairs, there are also moments of levity and opportunities for renewal. The rise of figures like Rees-Mogg, the unintentional creation of fake news stories, and the need to revive historical studies underscore the ever-changing landscape of politics and academia. By embracing these challenges with a touch of humor and a commitment to reinvigorating our intellectual pursuits, we can navigate these tumultuous times and emerge with a renewed sense of purpose.