21st March 2017
Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset since 2010. A prominent figure on the Conservative backbenches, he is staunch eurosceptic. He is also a member of several respected parliamentary committees, most notably the Treasury Select Committee. Well known for filibustering, he holds the record for the longest world spoken in Parliament: floccinaucinihilipilification.
Q: With Article 50 being triggered next Wednesday, how confident are you that a trade deal will be struck with the EU? Do you think that we will leave on WTO terms, and how devastating do you think this could be for the UK?
A: I think a trade deal is more likely than not, and it’s in the interest of the EU to have one. It would be very damaging, particularly to the Irish economy but also to segments within other economies, if they were subject to the common external tariff when exporting to the UK, and we have a large trade deficit with the EU. It’s in our interest, as well, to maintain the free trade that we’ve got, that very few countries wish to impose tariffs on. So, that’s the first point.
To your second question, WTO terms would be fine. There are so many opportunities for us in the rest of the world, that the tariffs on our goods going out would be manageable. On cars, it’s 10%, but the pound has gone down by 13% against the dollar since Brexit, so that’s manageable. On agricultural produce, we’re only 55% self-sufficient, so if tariffs were imposed on our agriculture, they would be able to sell into the domestic market, assuming we retaliated.
Ultimately, the option must be to get cheaper food along with cheaper clothing from the rest of the world, and a sensible UK government would look to go to zero tariffs on everything, to go to genuine free trade, because that’s in the interest of both UK consumers and UK businesses. The inputs of the latter get cheaper, but they also then specialise in the things they’re best at. So WTO terms are fine and workable. It’s not a big problem if we go out without an agreement, but an agreement is more likely than not.
Bear in mind, with tariffs you punish your consumers, and the great shift in the economy from the 1930s when there were last major tariff increases is that consumers are now much more powerful than they were then. In the1930s, overwhelmingly, employment consisted of large numbers in large factories. Therefore, protecting producer interests was also an electoral interest. Now, society has changed, and the consumer is much more important electorally and economically than the producer.
Q: How much do you think Brexit will affect business? We have yet to see the exodus of talent from the UK which was predicted, but do you think this could start once Article 50 has been triggered?
A: I think it’s likely that many people who are here are settled and will want to stay here, and also, that there will be a settlement that allows people who are here to stay. But even if the EU won’t agree, even if we tumble out without an agreement, there is no way that the millions of EU nationals living in the UK will be expected to leave. This is partly because we’re a civilised nation, and civilised nations don’t deport people who haven’t broken the law, and partly because the Home Office simply isn’t capable of deporting that number of people. And there would be an outcry if it was even attempted.
As we get further away from the 23rd June 2016, I think people will feel more secure about staying here. Then, once we’ve left the EU, a new immigration system will develop, to allow people all over the world to come in, if they’ve got talents that we need. So it will be a much fairer immigration system, without the skew towards the EU. I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of talent, and I think that we will make arrangements so that businesses can get the people they need. And that’s going to be a mix: it’s going to be people needed for seasonal work in agriculture, but it’s also going to be people to work in the City, on a more permanent basis.
Q: Do you think that it was right for Theresa May not to give Scotland a referendum in the next couple of years? How much do you think this will strengthen the nationalist cause? Do you think that Nicola Sturgeon knew that she wouldn’t get a referendum, but announced that she was seeking one anyway to increase her support?
A: I think you hit the nail on the head: I think Nicola Sturgeon asked for a referendum, desperately hoping that it would be refused. Then she could say: ‘My referendum is being stopped by those beastly English, and it’s all very disgraceful’, thinking that that would increase the appeal of Independence. It doesn’t seem to have worked, because the Scottish people don’t seem to want a second referendum.
Why should it be delayed until after Brexit? Well, the UK leaves as the UK, and so, Scotland will have to reapply as a new member state; as a candidate member state. It therefore makes sense for the people of Scotland to have a vote (which they’re entitled to at some date in the future) once we’ve left and the negotiations are completed, and they see the new situation. That is to say, will fishing and farming go to Scotland, will it be a devolved matter, will they find that devo max is reinvigorated – and then they’ll be able to ask themselves whether they really want to hand fishing and farming back to Brussels. But to do it before they’ve seen what happens means that they might be missing out on the great advantages of Brexit, and they might then find they want to change their minds again.
I think you want to have a degree of certainty, and I think the Scottish people actually understand that. If opinion polls are to be believed, they don’t want a second vote until after Brexit has taken place. I accept their right to have a second vote, I accept that Brexit has changed things quite significantly, but that was a possibility in 2014. It was known that the referendum was on the table, and the SNP said they wouldn’t have another vote for a generation. I think they are playing politics with this; you would expect them to; it’s the one thing they believe in. But I think the right time is no earlier than after we’ve left, and maybe considerably later.
If there is another referendum, I don’t want us to do a Project Fear campaign, which we did in 2014, and it was tried by the Remain side in 2016. There are economic difficulties in Scotland leaving, but I’d rather concentrate on the advantages of the Union: namely, that they are part of a bigger successful whole, that they are our fellow countrymen, and that we are British – United Kingdom-ish, if you prefer. In addition, all parts of the union benefit, we have a shared history, we have shared relationships with family members who are Scottish, Welsh, or Irish, and that’s very important as the definition of country. Also, we share burdens, and although some of the money that comes from England is spent in Scotland, Scotland has been a great contributor to the United Kingdom, and this has benefitted everybody. I’d far rather have a positive campaign emphasising the benefits, than: “If you leave, you’re bankrupt,” which is what we tried in 2014.
Q: What’s your opinion of George Osborne taking up his new position as Editor of the Evening Standard? Do you think that he can properly manage his growing list of responsibilities?
A: I think it’s a good thing for MPs to have outside interests – I do personally, so it would be hypocritical of me to complain. I think it’s beneficial to Parliament, because it brings in outside experience, and it means that we don’t have entirely professional politicians. I think you want some professional politicians, but you also want a bit of variety.
I think the question really for George Osborne is: will he have the time to do all the things as well as he would like? It’s going to be an enormously busy life for him. I think most of the conflicts are with the Evening Standard and not with Parliament, so if the Proprietor of the Evening Standard is happy about that, who am I to second guess him? From a parliamentary point of view, I’m sure he will be able to fulfil his responsibilities to the people of Tatton, as well as editing the Standard. But editing a newspaper is a very busy job – my father was editor of the Times when I was child, and I know how busy he was. So there’ll be a lot of demands on George’s time, but I suppose the defence is that when he was Chancellor, there were a lot of demands on his time, and probably, being Chancellor is even busier than being the editor of a newspaper.
Q: You’re currently the favourite to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons. Given John Bercow’s recent comments on Trump, how soon do you think an election for the speakership will be? How would you be different to Bercow in this role?
A: First of all, I’m a longstanding supporter of John Bercow. I think that he’s a very important Speaker and he has done enormously good work in improving the standing of the House of Commons. He is biased in favour of the House of Commons, and that’s as it should be. He’s always making the Commons central to national debate, and that’s really been important and beneficial, so I am an admirer and supporter of his.
I don’t think his recent comments on Trump are that important. I think it was a brief flurry of news that has now passed into the background.
If there was a vacancy tomorrow, I wouldn’t put my name forward. The convention is that it shifts parties, so it would be a Labour person this time. If it were to come up at this very early stage, I wouldn’t put my name forward because I still want to speak out on the issues of the day, which obviously as Speaker you can’t. Basically, it’s not going to be me, and I hope that Bercow carries on and completes his time, or goes on longer.
It’s not in the interests of the House of Commons to attack its own Speaker. The Speaker is symbolic of the influence of the House of Commons, and attacking the Speaker is attacking ourselves.
Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Well, you should definitely read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you haven’t already. If you’re thinking of a financial career, you should read Graham and Dodd on investment analysis. You should read something like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, partly for the historical knowledge, but partly for the elegance of the writing. You should take Churchill’s advice and read a Dictionary of Quotations, because that’s a very good cheat for knowledge about almost everything. And then, as you’re allowed to relax, you should definitely read PG Woodhouse, who is great fun and always uplifting.
Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Really obvious ones: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. In business and in politics, you just have to keep persevering, and eventually things turn. It is also true with investment – you need to keep on going to find good stocks, to find the thing that will change your portfolio, to find a bit of information that you need to complete the picture that you’re trying to build up. And in politics: today, we were just speaking to Yasmin Qureshi, a Labour MP, a wonderful Member of Parliament, who, shortly after she was first elected, started a campaign to reveal the great scandal about a drug called Primodos, which was prescribed in the 60s and 70s to pregnant ladies and seems to have created birth defects. Until now, claims to this effect have been denied and covered up, and so on. Today at lunchtime, I was at the pre-broadcast of a Sky News documentary about this, and it’s a complete exposure and a vindication of what Yasmin Qureshi has been saying – really impressive, and it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and determination to campaign over six years. But that’s a hard campaign: you face lots of setbacks, you find lots of people who ought to take you seriously but brush you off, and she’s been so wonderfully determined. Perseverance applies to all aspects of politics: take Bill Cash, a longstanding friend of mine, he’s been banging the Eurosceptic drum since the early 1990s, and he was considered marginal and eccentric, but because he knew more about the EU than anybody else, he’s finally won the argument, and now we’re leaving. So if you really believe in things, perseverance is the key.
Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: It’s now so long ago, I can’t really remember what my teenage years were like. I think I was very lucky in my education, and I therefore discovered that there was a world of opportunity, and that there are amazing opportunities if you want to reach for them. There are forks in the road, and you can take the fork that leads on to success, or you can decide to cash in your chips and retire. When I was at Eton, there were opportunities to do lots of things. I saw other people doing them and being successful, and I realised they were worth trying.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Well, you’re not quite at university, but the one thing I wish I’d done at university was to spend more time on history and a little less time on politics. Having said that, I met a don at Oxford on Friday evening, and we were discussing what it’s like at Oxford now and so on, and I told him that I felt I should have spent more time on history. He said that he wished he’d done the reverse: he wished he had spent less time on his subject and taken more time to pursue all the other opportunities on offer to undergraduates!
I absolutely love the study of history, and I think I allowed politics to be too distracting when I was an undergraduate.
Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
A: I’ve been very lucky to meet lots of people over the years. There are obvious ones, like Margaret Thatcher, who I met mainly in her older age. She was impressive then because you knew what she had done. I also met her once or twice before she had dementia, and she is obviously an enormously impressive person.
I’ve met Henry Kissinger, who is an incredibly influential man; very interesting in the effect he’s had on global politics. I’ve met, albeit briefly, the Queen. All of those are up in the pantheon of the greats, and so it’s hard to say who is the most interesting.
Sometimes, the most interesting conversations are the ones that you have with people who you meet randomly, and I think that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. Therefore, the fault is with you rather than the person you’re talking to, if you don’t find them interesting. I can’t remember who it was who said ‘Even the boring person is interesting, because if he’s the only boring person in the world, he’s interesting simply because he’s unique.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If only you can find out that one thing that somebody is really passionate about, then you will have an interesting conversation. And so, you always want to try and make time to find out what that is.