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The illustrious and the illiterate: Viscount Castlereagh and Jacob Rees-Mogg

In 2010, viewers of RTE, Ireland’s national television network, voted in a public poll to choose the greatest person in the history of Ireland. The top five in ascending order were Bono, James Connolly, Mary Robinson, Michael Collins and John Hume. Three of them were still living at that time and the other two came to prominence and died during the 20th century. Is it embarrassing that so much of our history has been barren of “great” Irish people? Or is it a cause for celebration that we are so abundantly endowed with them in our own time?

If the short list were a bit longer and established with more sobriety than frivolity, two individuals merit serious consideration who will never get close to the starting gate in any RTE poll. They are Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington and Robert Stewart, later Viscount Castlereagh who became, later again, the second Marquess of Londonderry.

Both left an imprint on Ireland itself but their overall historical impact extended more widely and deeply in Britain and across Europe. Both were born within 7 weeks of each other in 1769.

Wellington lived longer, surviving until 1852, but Castlereagh’s life was cut short by his own hand in August 1822. The bicentenary of the latter’s death is an anniversary that will go largely unremarked on the island of his birth — but it deserves more attention.

Of the two, Castlereagh has the darker reputation in Ireland where he served as acting or actual Chief Secretary from 1797–1801 during which he played an enthusiastic part in suppressing the 1798 rebellion and spared no expense by way of bribery and corruption to secure the Irish Parliament’s adoption of the Act of Union in 1800 and its own abolition. These achievements caused Daniel O’Connell to describe Castlereagh as “the assassin of his country”.

In mitigation, Castlereagh’s firm aspiration had been to secure the political emancipation of Catholics alongside the Act of Union, an ambition thwarted principally by the implacable opposition of King George III. The restoration of civil rights to Roman Catholics across Britain and Ireland was eventually achieved decades later in a campaign spearheaded by Wellington as Prime Minister under pressure from Daniel O’Connell’s repeal movement in Ireland.

Castlereagh served as Secretary of State for War from 1804–1809, his upward career trajectory then being derailed by a duel with the then Foreign Secretary, George Canning, from which he emerged physically unscathed but politically wounded. He spent three years in the political wilderness before being appointed Foreign Secretary in 1812 which position he retained until his death and on which his reputation for greatness is principally founded.

His immediate main preoccupation as Foreign Secretary was the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon’s defeat was achieved, in part, through the successful military campaigns against him led by Wellington over several years, but also by Castlereagh’s negotiation of the Treaty of Chaumont in 1814 which formalised the quadruple alliance between Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia binding them to defeat Napoleon which they did for the first time in 1814.

The allies made the mistake of exiling Napoleon only as far away as Elba in the Mediterranean, too close to the mainland. He escaped in March 1815, rounded up an army to confront Wellington (and Blucher) at Waterloo in June where he was beaten once and for all and banished to Saint Helena, 7,000 km. away.

In the calm interlude of Napoleon’s exile in Elba, Castlereagh oversaw the institution of the Congress of Vienna comprising the member states of the quadruple alliance and post-Napoleonic France. The Congress established a post-revolutionary European order, arrangements for collective European security and mechanisms for international dispute resolution. Though the arrangements themselves didn’t survive beyond a decade, the spirit and ethos endured long enough to prevent another major intra-European war until 1914.

Surely, all of that is enough to rank Castlereagh ahead of Bono at least?

If Castlereagh had an obsession and an abhorrence of revolution or insurrection, this predilection probably owed something to his witnessing at first hand the chaos of the French revolution in 1791–1792. Bringing order and peace to post-Napoleonic Europe (and thus keeping Britain largely out of European squabbles) stand to his credit. But his bias towards suppression and repression did not burnish his reputation in Ireland and it wasn’t universally popular in Britain either.

I met murder on the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh –

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven bloodhounds followed him.

All were fat: and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,

He tossed them human hearts to chew

Which from his wide cloak he drew.

For a long time, I assumed these swirling, sinister images came from the pen of some anonymous Irish bard in condemnation of Castlereagh’s harsh policies in Ireland. But they were authored by Percy Shelley in reaction to the Viscount’s enthusiastic endorsement of the political repression that followed the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 when cavalry charged a crowd of around 60,000 in Manchester assembled in support of reform of parliamentary representation. Fifteen people were killed.

I want to leave Castlereagh to one side for a bit to focus on somebody who would not make even a long list of great historic persons anywhere: Jacob Rees-Mogg.

On 19 February, The Times published an interview with the new Minister for Brexit Opportunities conducted while he was on a visit to Felixstowe, Britain’s largest container port, “to see first-hand the problems with the EU rules and regulations that are still on the UK’s statute books.” The newspaper tweeted snippets from the interview including the following:

He highlights shipments of tuna from Thailand — 20% of which have to be physically inspected — as one example of something he has learnt from the visit.

“As far as anybody can remember, there has been no occasion when any shipment of tuna from Thailand has been faulty. This was done as a sort of semi-restrictive practice of the EU — a non-tariff barrier to trade,” he says. “So, why are we still doing it?” he asks

“I don’t think you want to use non-tariff barriers as a means to stop free trade. And doubling up on regulation is a non-tariff barrier. And it will be very bad for the UK because people will simply say, well, we’re not going to bother with that market,” he says

…he says there is a huge dividend to be realised through making the UK a light touch regulatory environment that accepts other people’s rules.

He says it would answer one of the biggest gripes of Leave supporters: the everyday regulations that got in the way of people’s lives

Regarding Mr. Rees-Mogg’s comments about the treatment of Thai tuna, one Twitter commentator wondered wryly whether he should maintain his 20-year practice of locking his door every night as he had never been burgled during all of that time.

Regulations specifying what kind of tuna may be imported and the checks to be performed to establish conformity with those criteria are NOT to discourage Thai exporters from attempting to sell to the UK. Rather they FACILITATE trade in two ways.

First, they specify for would-be exporters to Britain exactly what tuna will qualify for admission, so they know exactly what they have to do. Second, they give the British public the assurance that “unsafe” tuna is unlikely to reach the supermarket aisles, so they will not hesitate to buy the stuff.

Mr. Rees-Mogg may get high on deregulation but I wonder how the British public would feel about having to buy food or, indeed, most other goods, without any official “blessing” of their quality? I wonder too if the British public would be happy for there to be no checks at all on foodstuffs entering Britain for sale to the public?

We will go back to Viscount Castlereagh for a wider illustration of the facilitative quality of regulation. In 1818, when he was Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh wrote to all British consuls across the world asking them to obtain examples of their local standard weights. At the time, the UK had no universal conversion table between the many different systems of weights and measures used by foreign cities.

71 sets of weights trickled into London over the next two years where they were put in two cabinets installed in the Royal Mint with 71 numbered drawers between them, each with the name of a city from Alicant to Wismar. These cabinets are now on display in the Science Museum in London. When the measurements were compared with each other, the Mint discovered that almost every previous conversion table was wrong — and those errors had been costing UK traders money for a full century.

Now let’s imagine that the UK decided to exercise its post-Brexit sovereignty by insisting on the old imperial measures of distance, area and weight being applied within the country as its sole standards. All regulations established in common with its former EU partners mandating the use of the metric system could be consigned to the bonfire.

More speculatively, imagine if every other country in the world similarly established its own bespoke measurement systems as a badge of sovereign identity. If Ireland were not tied to Brussels’ apron strings, we could imagine a system of weights with units called spuds and units of length called hurleys.

Let’s go further and imagine that Britain, as its sovereignty entitles, established its own unique system of time measurement and resiled from all international regulatory arrangements designating what counts as “the time now” across the world. After all, Britain survived without a common national time system (let alone one co-ordinated with other countries) until the advent of a nationwide rail network in the 19th century and what harm did that do to anybody?

Or something more specific but easily visualised as well as conceptualised. Britain might decide to regulate for goods containers being transported along the roads and railways of the sceptred isle to be of different standard dimensions to those that apply internationally. Better still, why regulate for standard container sizes at all? Let everybody do their own thing. After all, such liberation is what personal freedom as well as national sovereignty are about?

What level of international interaction, especially commercial trade, would there be in such a world as this?

You don’t even have to go as far as international standards to see the absurdity of Mr. Rees-Mogg’s position. By his lights, the obligation while driving to observe speed limits, to obey traffic lights, even to stick to the left hand side of the road are surely only pettifogging regulations that get in the way of people’s lives. After all, people are quite capable of navigating their own way from A to B, using that all too uncommon faculty “common sense”.

Or one last contemporary example: imagine sending the rich footballing kids of Liverpool and Manchester City onto the pitch without any rule book at all to specify how they should play football? I wonder if Mr. Rees-Mogg sees the offside rule as a restraint on trade for these multi-millionaires or just an ordinary infringement of personal freedom?

Whatever his faults, Viscount Castlereagh was a giant compared to the pygmy that is Jacob Rees-Mogg.

However, I did notice that photographs of Mr. Rees-Mogg during his tour of Felixstowe container port showed him bedecked with a hard hat and an orange high viz jacket. Even the most zealous and diligent deregulator surrenders to the dictates of Health & Safety. More than his job’s worth to do otherwise.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.