John Harris

Journalist & Author

Britain’s Brexit crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools | John Harris

Learning from this mess, we must cut the ties that bind the state and key professions to a tiny number of schools

Among the myriad absurdities of Brexit, one has repeatedly taken the whole thing into the realms of the surreal: the gifting of the whip hand to the Tory faction known as the European Research Group. At the start of yet another watershed week, it is still this 90-strong band of ideologues that holds the keys to both Theresa May’s political future and the fate of her deal. Faced with a third meaningful vote, will they accept that their only remaining options are the prime minister’s version, or such a long delay that their dream will start to fade? Once more the spotlight will shine on their de facto leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg. This one-man embodiment of the mess into which we have all been dragged is reportedly coming round to supporting the withdrawal agreement, and “seeking a ladder to climb down”.

Where did he come from, this human museum piece? His late father William’s editorship of the Times, conducted according to instincts described by one obituarist as both “economically dry” and “socially conservative”, is one part of the story. Another goes even further back, to the roots of the Rees-Mogg family wealth, in the ownership of coalmines in Somerset. This is the same county where Rees-Mogg now represents such fading former pit towns as Radstock and Midsomer Norton, places replete with the ghosts of a lost industrial past and the consequences of the austerity that he has enthusiastically endorsed. At university, Rees-Mogg was a nightly presence in the debating hall of the Oxford Union. His apparent skill in matters of high finance – which, according to a recent edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, has earned him an estimated £7m since the referendum, assisted by the fall in the value of the pound – goes back to childhood dealing of stocks and shares, and time spent in Hong Kong and the City. The most telling element of his background, however, is surely the school that saw to the key five years of his education – Eton College. This institution sits at the heart of the Brexit mess and the dismal political failings that led to it. What comes to mind at the mention of Eton? Tailcoats? The eternally mysterious wall game? Or the angry lament contained in the Jam’s Eton Rifles, with its Larkin-esque opening line: “Sup up your beer, and collect your fags / There’s a row going on, down near Slough”, that lyrical portrait of a working class serially defeated by privilege (“All that rugby puts hairs on your chest / What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?”). Eton chiefly symbolises the unbroken English link between private education and power. To quote one old boy, who did his time in the 1980s: “Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country.”

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