It must be rare in politics for two syllables to say so much. 'Lightweight', a boxing category between 135 and 126 pounds was, as everyone must now know, how one Conservative MP described another of his colleagues. It slipped out so easily from the mouth of the languid multi-millionaire Etonian, son of an ennobled ex-editor to The Times
, as he characterised his colleague, son of a Scottish farm worker and alumnus of an agricultural college.
The implication that Rees-Mogg regarded himself as superior is inescapable. Here was a man who went from Eton and Oxford straight into the financial industry where, by skilful use of other people's money, he made himself a vast fortune, a process aided by off-shore tax havens. No doubt he believes that he is superior, but on what grounds? Certainly, he has never had to soil his hands with work, nor apparently with nappies having relied on his own nanny to care for his children. Everything in his life has been presented to him on a silver platter; he is one of those who would decry the nanny state while benefitting from the attentions of an actual nanny.
In contrast, the subject of his condescension, Douglas Ross, has in fact toiled on the land, served on councils, and worked as both MP and MSP, while becoming a first-class football referee. He showed his character by laughing off the insult, no doubt knowing that there are three categories below lightweight. Of these, bantam weight would best fit Rees-Mogg, since his family crest is aptly surmounted by a 'cock proper'!
This might be dismissed as a storm in a teacup were it not for the seriousness of the context, Ross's call for Johnson's resignation, the dire state of British politics, and the looming threat of break-up of the United Kingdom. We are now facing threats that are truly existential, not just to the UK but to civilisation. David Davis was acting hopefully in quoting Leo Amery's dismissal of Chamberlain, as I had suggested the previous week. (12 January 2022
) And how unbelievable that Johnson did not recognise the quote of Cromwell's dismissal of the Long Parliament being the finale to one of the most significant speeches ever made in the House of Commons (www.ukpol.co.uk
Now is a time when the UK needs leadership, and frankly we do not have it. Johnson has made apparent what many already knew, that he is unreliable and driven mainly by self-interest. He is a stranger to strategic thought but a master of short-term tactical gains by bluster and dishonesty. His more intelligent ministers clearly know this and are lining up to take over. But we must ask ourselves in Scotland, what will his successor bring for the whole of the UK?
Those in the government who have continued to express support for Johnson claim he has got us through COVID-19 and is responsible for the success of the vaccination programme. He is responsible for neither of these, mismanaging the first repeatedly and having the good luck to have the NHS, publicly-funded universities, and an able minister behind the second. He became Prime Minister by dishonestly promoting the cause of Brexit with the support of such characters as Rees-Mogg (who took care to move his money-making enterprise to Ireland). His supporters in the Tory Party still have the dream of a worldwide free market, with Britain as the swashbuckling leader, but they are already multi-millionaires – what more do they want? Have they not seen yet that the riches do not flow down? They are not likely to fool the so-called red wall twice – these politicians really do regard most people north of Oxford and Cambridge as lightweight.
The Tories chose Johnson against their better judgement, knowing his flawed character, because they rightly believed him a vote winner. But his character flaws are fatal – he tells people what they want to hear – reduce taxes, golden opportunities, beat Covid, sunlit uplands, while ignoring until too late that obstacles stand in the way, COVID-19, climate change, growing deprivation in the UK, trading costs of Brexit, and the enmity of those he disparages. It is true that he has been presented with a greater set of problems than any leader since Chamberlain, some of his own making, but like Chamberlain he has proved himself not up to the job. He does not have Chamberlain's excuse of a fatal illness. Johnson's is a fatal character flaw.
There is no point in a leader achieving power without a strategy to address the more obvious problems faced by society. The good leader acknowledges the problems but outlines the strategy for the electorate. Good leaders set a moral and attitudinal example and surround themselves with the most able people they can find, people who can challenge them. Bad leaders set a poor example and surround themselves with sycophants and ideological supporters.
Since Churchill's coalition and Attlee's 1945 Government, it is difficult to think of any UK Prime Minister who has approached these standards. Angela Merkel comes to mind as the outstanding European example, definitely a heavyweight. I watch with dread the machinations in the Tory Party as they try to agree on a successor. Few punch higher than welterweight.
We lightweights in Scotland (and the north of England – I assume the Mogg attitude excludes the Welsh in view of his Rees ancestry) have a big problem. The issues confronting us are plain to see but are not simply national ones – they all require an internationalist approach. Nevertheless, small nations all need to play their part, from leading the way to setting an example to others and encouraging their populations. Here are our issues:
• Can Scotland become carbon-free in the three sectors: energy, transport, and consumables?
• Can Scotland reduce substantially the gap between rich and poor?
• Can Scotland afford universal education and health/social care in the context of increasing energy and food prices?
These are all problems for all of the UK. The follow-up questions are:
• Could Scotland achieve these objectives as an independent nation? If so...
I'm sure I am not alone in asking these questions, nor do I see any of our current political parties in Scotland as having all or even any of the answers. The SNP has a leader who comes close to fulfilling my criteria though bound necessarily by over-optimistic ideology and thus surrounded by group think. I would rank her on the Rees-Mogg scale as light heavyweight. Labour is the only party that has ever addressed such severe problems successfully, albeit with limited success, since 1945.
The Tories have shared in presiding over the mess and corruption induced by adherence to outdated neo-liberal economics, and have shown themselves incompetent, while the Liberal-Democrats make some of the right noises and do well in local elections but have never shown themselves capable of being other than a recipient of protest votes since the 1940s, despite their brief spell of coalition. The Greens are obviously on the right lines but acting, probably sensibly, as a ginger group in the SNP and thus not acceptable to those who feel independence would be a second Brexit.
Scotland has a well-educated and politically active population. We need to become less tribal in our voting habits and, I am afraid, less selfish. We can vote for different parties in UK and Scotland if we wish. Our votes now must be thought of as votes for the future welfare of humanity. By the same token, I would hope that our politicians start to think of us as grown-ups who do not expect everything for no cost. The problems they need to address imply increasing costs and they must tell us how their policies will redistribute wealth yet encourage the necessary entrepreneurial opportunities. When they canvass us, they should expect hard questions about strategy. I for one am tired of silly photos of politicians posing around hospitals and holes in roads.
The change, as always, will come from the top: the leaders. Three of the five in Scotland are so far untested. This is their moment to show us what weight they can punch at.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own