Paul Johnson

Sense and magnanimity

People see William Rees-Mogg as an archetypal member of the Establishment.

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William Rees-Mogg

Harper Pres, pp. 329, £

People see William Rees-Mogg as an archetypal member of the Establishment. But this is not quite true. His father’s family had been modest landowners for centuries, but his mother was Irish-American and Mogg was baptised a Catholic. His religion has brought him such happiness as he has enjoyed, including a long and comfortable marriage, but it also had a direct effect on his education. The family school was Charterhouse, but Mogg sat for the Eton scholarship and did well. Lord Quickswood, the Provost, vetoed him on religious grounds. He was the former Lord Hugh Cecil MP, leader of the Ultra-Tory anti-Home-Rulers, a gang known as the Hughligans.

The veto was never again exercised, and Mogg was the last schoolboy to be barred from Eton as a papist. It was a blow — ‘I had even been measured for my top hat’ — and it changed his life. Instead of going effortlessly into politics, he had to be content with Charterhouse and make his way in the world.

Curiously enough, he does not hold this against Eton, and he sent his son there. It was a different matter with Balliol, to which he went in 1946 on a Brackenbury scholarship. After two terms the Master, Sandy Lindsay, ‘decided to give my place in the college to a demobilised ex-serviceman’, and Mogg was dumped in the RAF to do his national service as a sergeant.

This interrupted various delightful Oxford activities, including a developing political relationship with Margaret Roberts. So he has had it in for Balliol ever since.

The only other institution Mogg really dislikes is the BBC, of which he was Vice-Chairman during the difficult time when Alasdair Milne was the Director-General.Otherwise it has been plain sailing, as Mogg planted his feet firmly, but never vaingloriously, on the upward ladder of success.

He was recruited directly from Oxford by the Financial Times under the great Gordon Newton. In due course he moved to The Times, and when the Astors sold to Thomson, Mogg was made the first editor under the new regime. He was not a great sacred monster editor, in the style of his predecessor Sir William Haley, being neither a fanatic nor a public moralist. But professionally he was well above average; he never made a fool of himself, and acquired remarkably few enemies. In old age he has returned to the Times as a columnist, one of the few good things left in the paper. He also writes a column for the Mail on Sunday and I admire his stamina at the age of 83.

What distinguishes his memoirs is a lack of malice. There are no unpleasant stories. Most of the main political questions between the 1950s and the present are examined dispassionately and lenient judgments pronounced. The only person presented as without redeeming features is Harold Wilson, described as ‘spending an evening at Chequers trying to bribe the Times into sacking a journalist he disliked and consuming a bottle of brandy’. This is ironic, since the most famous sentence Mogg penned in a Times leader was ‘Lord George Brown is a better man drunk than the Prime Minister sober.’

Mogg began life as a Keynsian but his most important mentor was Peter Jay, who converted him to monetarism.The person he seems to have liked best and lunched with most often was Robin Day. Macmillan, Home, Heath, Callaghan pass under review, getting occasional slaps on the wrist. Rupert Murdoch is hailed as a first-class proprietor. He has some kind (and true) things to say about Richard Nixon. He is positively effusive about Denis Healey: ‘delightful, highly intelligent; aggressive, very tough minded ... with unusually wide cultural interests.’ Mogg has been for many years in the House of Lords and has absorbed its distaste for sharp personal criticism. This gives his book magnanimity, to put it mildly, but it makes for dull reading.

All the same, there is more sound sense than in most volumes of journalistic memoirs. Mogg has had, on the whole, an enviable career, though there have been some disasters. He was editor during the year-long Times stoppage, for which he must bear some responsibility for faulty management strategy. He was also a blameless spectator of the catastrophe at GEC after Arnold Weinstock’s retirement. On the other hand, he was a very successful chairman of the Arts Council, especially when Grey Gowrie was Arts Minister.

He usually contrives to be on the winning side, and this testifies to his judgment rather than slipperiness. Indeed he is a man of principle and I cannot conceive any circumstances, on a major issue, in which he would knowingly do something wrong, however convenient. Nor is he ever led astray by a mischievous sense of humour.

In a final chapter he recounts a mystical experience and one or two significant dreams. In general, his tone is prosaic. This makes for sobriety and worthiness. I am, though, reminded of Jowett’s words, as quoted in Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks: ‘We have sought truth and sometimes perhaps found it. But have we had any fun?’