Invited by the University of Birmingham Conservatives, controversial backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg visited campus on Friday 9th March, speaking about his views on free speech, housing, mental health, Russia and tuition fees to a packed lecture theatre of around 300 students.
Held in Mechanical Engineering with a considerable security presence, the session lasted an hour and consisted of a twenty minute speech on the principles of conservatism from the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset followed by forty minutes of open questions from the audience.
Although the event was organised by the UoB Conservatives, members of rival political societies were also present, including around thirty protesting outside of the venue. The non-violent protest was organised by the Socialist Students and the Women’s and LGBTQ Associations to demonstrate opposition to Rees-Mogg’s hard right traditionalism, which has seen him vote against same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
Speaking to Redbrick, protester and first year English student Marion said: ‘[Rees-Mogg] has a right to freedom of speech, but under that same right, we are able to protest him. He has repeatedly shown to have no respect for people he deems to be lesser than him, and if he can’t respect other people’s rights, I should not be told to respect him, or him coming to the university’.
Inside the lecture theatre, after all students present were cleared by security after bag checks, society president Luke Caldecott introduced Rees-Mogg to the room and presented him with his first ever Freddo chocolate bar. Praising UoB for its ‘Conservative tradition’, the politician received a small standing ovation on his arrival, including from one audience member wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, before making a speech on the values of conservatism.
During the subsequent Q&As, Rees-Mogg praised the protest against him outside the venue as ‘marvellous’, seeing it as a representation of the freedom of speech that upholds national democracy. The MP then went on to criticise the ‘lily-liveredness’ of ‘fanatics’ attempting to introduce safe spaces at universities or increase no-platforming legislation.
When questioned on this issue again by Education Officer Adam Goldstone, Rees-Mogg also added that no-platforming is an attempt to ‘shut down free speech’, and that instead controversial speakers should be allowed to have their opinions heard, regardless of ‘angry protests’. ‘Politicians shouldn’t be snowflakes either’, he said, generating applause from the audience.
Turning to other questions, on the topic of the Trump presidency Rees-Mogg praised the recent tax reforms and criticised anyone who holds ‘contempt’ for the US President as being ‘disrespectful’ to his office: ‘it is in our national interest to get on with whoever the President of the United States happens to be’.
Later, responding to a student’s criticism of his support for welfare cuts, Rees-Mogg defended his government’s spending plans and stated that the best way out of poverty is for people to seek employment. He added that he doesn’t believe the statistics about the high number of people using foodbanks, but commended the charity of volunteers who run them.
Rees-Mogg also called mental health support ‘a service that has been left behind for decades’, but said that the recent reduction in stigma surrounding it is ‘very refreshing’. He wants to see more qualified mental health specialists and a dramatic decrease in patient waiting times.
Considering university tuition fees, the MP said that parents have ‘a responsibility’ for subsidising the higher education of their children, and hence a lack of maintenance grants is fair. Rees-Mogg did, however, criticise the current 6.1% interest rate on tuition fee loans.
Following a question about the foreign aid budget, Rees-Mogg stated that whilst he is in favour of emergency aid, for example that which funds refugee camps, he does not support what he called ‘failed schemes’, citing the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’ project. Based on a conservative model, the MP wants to see our 0.7% of GDP spent on investments that facilitate economic growth overseas, such as the construction of power plants.
Turning to Brexit, the politician told the audience that they ‘will be the judge’, as students will have to live with its effects. In thirty years, we will need to ask ourselves ‘do [we] believe in democracy?’, rather than comparing the country then with the pre-Brexit one, Rees-Mogg urged. He also added that too much ‘mental energy is being expended on Brexit’ at the moment within government, which is leading to other important areas being ignored.
On the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Rees-Mogg said that rumours of Russian state involvement are ‘almost bound to be correct’. The MP stated that ‘Russia is a menace’ and that the UK government should ‘go after their money’ if the trail leads back to the Kremlin: ‘we haven’t been tough enough on Russia’.
The final question of the session concerned his ambitions to become leader of the Conservative Party, to which he replied, ‘I’m supporting Mrs May, there is no vacancy’. Rees-Mogg also added: ‘I’m a backbench MP […] I would not be a credible candidate’.
Following a standing ovation from a few members of the audience, Rees-Mogg was escorted out by security while students were told to stay in their seats until he had left.