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  • Daniel Ben-Shaul

Jacob Rees-Mogg: When Style Distracts from Substance

When appointed the chief organiser of government business in the House of Commons for Boris Johnson’s new-look cabinet, one can only assume Jacob Rees-Mogg landed his dream job. Ever the anachronistic anorak associated with defending parliamentary custom and tradition, there is no doubt that Rees-Mogg, Esq. is a man more disposed to the antiquities of life. As a backbencher, Rees-Mogg became notorious in Westminster circles as the espouser of not only niche parliamentarian custom, but also of often bewilderingly protracted speeches. Holder too, of course, is he of the record for the longest word in Hansard: floccinaucinihilipilification, ‘the act or habit of estimating as worthless’.

In light of this, it is perhaps no surprise that one of the first acts of the new Leader of the Commons, was the reissuing of a writing-style guide to his now expanded support team, on the best practices that should be used in formal communications. While the guide sensibly calls for accuracy by pleading staff to “CHECK your work”, some of the rules are more bizarre. “Very”; “Hopefully”; “Unacceptable”; “Disappointment” are all words banned by Mr Rees-Mogg, seemingly in an attempt to channel the positive enthusiasm and energy of his new boss. Further, all non-titled males must have the post-nominal Esq. (a courteous title of respect) attached to their names. The use of imperial measurements, as well as a double space after full stops, are also a must for staff.

Without willing to floccinaucinihilipilificate Rees-Mogg’s contribution to the upholding of ‘proper’ British speak, there is an inevitable sense of irony attached to this guide. Perhaps most comically, that it is one of the most libertarian ministers, of the most libertarian and free-market cabinet since Thatcher, that has issued this constrictive style-guide to his staff. So too, is the revelation that Rees-Mogg has himself broken his own rules, commonly using the banned word “very” across several different speeches.

While popular reaction to this style-guide (as all reactions to Rees-Mogg tend to be) was one of comedy, in a political era where style is ever increasingly domineering over substance, maybe there are wider lessons to be learnt on how we should approach and listen to our political representatives. Political rhetoric is now commonplace, and in what style or over what medium politicians communicate, is a key determination of to what extent they are listened to. Where Rees-Mogg succeeds by being antiquated, Trump does by being to the point and pertinent. What has come of this is a distraction over the substance of what our elected representatives are really saying. That is not to say that style should be disregarded, but rather that it is too often focused on ahead of the issues at stake.

The style in which people write is the personification of themselves, and in an age of increasing diversity and openness, against the wisdom of Rees-Mogg, all styles should therefore be celebrated. It should not however serve as a distraction, and journalists and writers (myself included) must make a more concerted effort to move past an emphasis on it, despite the comedy that it provides.

Who knows what the Leader of the House of Commas will come up with next.­­


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