Britain, Come Collect Your Large Adult Son

To listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg is to know him. And he sounds like a child.

Credit: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

As Britain’s parliamentarians debated into Tuesday evening the question of who might ultimately decide whether or not the nation careens into a no-deal Brexit, Jacob-Rees Mogg, the plummy government House leader, could be seen reclining along a bench. His eyes drooping, his left arm draped across his chest, his left leg crossed over his right, Rees-Mogg appeared barely able to stay awake. As opposition members across the floor admonished his posture and shouted at him to “sit up, man!” Rees-Mogg simply adjusted his little round eyeglasses.

Rees-Mogg’s casual approach to an impending national crisis might suggest he knows something everyone else does not. That’s unlikely. What is likely, however, is that he thinks he knows something everyone else does not.

Only days earlier, Rees-Mogg — a staunch supporter of efforts to leave the European Union — appeared on LBC, a British talk radio station, discussing the potential societal fallout from Britain’s looming departure from the EU, and the chaos that might erupt if their efforts were stymied. Over the summer, the details of the government’s planning for a no-deal Brexit, dubbed “Operation Yellowhammer,” were leaked to the Times. The documents outlined the potential for major job losses, food shortages, and disruption at ports — they also stressed that supply chains for medicines were “particularly vulnerable.”

In short, Jacob Rees-Mogg is a man-child.

As Rees-Mogg chatted on LBC, David Nicol, who had helped write the section of Yellowhammer outlining the possible impact on the medical sector, called into the program. “What level of mortality rate are you willing to accept in light of a no-deal Brexit?” he asked. Rees-Mogg was immediately dismissive. “I think this is the worst excess of Project Fear and I’m surprised that a doctor in your position would be fear-mongering in this way.”

Nicol quickly retorted: “Can I remind you that I wrote the plan for mitigation?”

“Well, you didn’t write very good plans if you hadn’t worked out how to mitigate, had you?” Rees-Mogg replied. “I think it’s deeply irresponsible of you, Dr. Nicol, to call in and try and spread fear across the country. I think it’s typical of Remainer campaigners, and you should be quite ashamed.”

Perfectly aligned with Michael Gove’s 2016 prereferendum declaration that Britons had had “quite enough of experts,” Rees-Mogg’s dismissal of Nicol was something more, too: a perfect example of sophomoric certainty, the unbending self-righteousness of a know-nothing, do-nothing schoolboy. In any other time, and most other places, it’s treated with either disdain or sympathy. In 21st-century Britain, it puts you in charge of the country and its exit from the EU.

In 2017 Jia Tolentino wrote that we live in the “land of the large adult son,” a moment in time where the scion of a wealthy or privileged man is “endlessly excusable: though he does nothing right, he can do no wrong.” Tolentino pointed to the Trump brothers, Eric and Donald Jr., as exemplars, whose many mistakes and overall boorishness have made them a meme unto themselves. The Onion, for example, regularly skewers the duo as bumbling, try-hard Hardy Boys, a couple of fools at play in their dad’s White House (“Trump Boys Swallow Luggage Keys In Case They Get Locked Up in Jail And Need to Escape,” a recent headline read).

The term applies equally to Britain. Boris Johnson is a large adult son whose now also the prime minister. Prince Andrew is another. As for Rees-Mogg? He was born into a wealthy family. His father, William, was a former editor of the Times and vice chairman of the BBC, who became Baron Rees-Mogg in 1988. Raised in a country house by his nanny, Jacob attended the elite school — Eton, Oxford — and briefly worked as an investment banker before being elected as an MP in 2010. He retains a strange, juvenile attachment to his nanny, whom he took with him as he canvassed for his seat in Parliament. And his actual accomplishments are few.

No wonder he was falling asleep. Creating a serious and realistic plan to exit the EU is too much hard work, the stuff grown-ups do.

Even his recent book, The Victorians, was widely panned. Historian Richard J. Evans excoriated the book as being “hopelessly inadequate as history,” and derided its “naivety and simple-mindedness.” It is a reflection of the single-issue man: A Brexiteer wearing blinders caught in a cycle immaturely and endlessly assured by his own self-conviction.

In short, Jacob Rees-Mogg is a man-child. The scenario he found so boring Tuesday that he needed to lie down provides the perfect example of this. Rees-Mogg is known for his filibustering and his liberal use of an expansive, yet blustering, vocabulary during debates. Even more, he’s known for his style — a finger-wagging, instructional hectoring tone, replete with arcane or obscure words plucked from a thesaurus. Rees-Mogg sounds like is a teenager in debate club, mimicking the style of his teachers. A boy dressed in his father’s jacket, playing at being the boss, with all the subtleties of adulthood stripped away, leaving only the empty words behind. In other words, a precocious fraud.

No wonder he was falling asleep. Creating a serious and realistic plan to exit the EU is too much hard work, the stuff grown-ups do. Like a child, Rees-Mogg just wants to get to the exciting bit: the messy crash.

Britain, come collect your large adult son. It’s probably time for his tea.


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