Rees-Mogg’s book is ‘sentimental jingoism and empire nostalgia’ | Books

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At some point during his busy political schedule, Jacob Rees-Mogg managed to convince an editor that what the world really needs in 2019 is an updated version of Mrs Ernest Ames’s An ABC for Baby Patriots.

And so we have The Victorians – Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, which provides a reassuring narrative of past British greatness through the lives of 11 men and one woman (Queen Victoria had to be included for obvious reasons). This is not history as we usually think of it, however, but rather a sentimental vision of the past as the author wishes it had been (think Ripping Yarns played straight and without the canned laughter).

The eponymous titans, including the usual suspects such as Palmerston, Pugin, Gladstone and Disraeli, are reduced to mere cyphers, entirely defined by the fact that they were first and foremost Victorians whose every thought and action was representative of what the author takes to be particular “Victorian” virtues (or cliches): duty, honour, work ethic, fair play and so on. It goes without saying that issues of race, class and gender get short shrift and there is no hint of sarcasm when Rees-Mogg praises a colonial official in India, claiming that “his life was a vindication of the Empire he served and was spent in service to the peoples who lived in it”. The British, in other words, “do right” by their colonial subjects, referred to as “charges”, while the only massacres of the 19th century apparently were those committed by the Ottomans in the Balkans. This is Whig history on steroids, repackaged as a mirthless morality tale for the 21st century.

Rees-Mogg appears to have made a virtue of ignoring most relevant scholarship of the past 50 years, and the irony is that – for all his fan-boying over General Gordon and Co – has little interest in the actual Victorians. Instead the esteemed member for North East Somerset prefers to rehash half-remembered anecdotes from a Boy’s Own story, or perhaps tales told by his nanny. The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.

Dr Kim A Wagner is senior lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London

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