William Rees-Mogg: A Remembrance

Saturday, 29 Dec 2012 09:47 AM

By James Dale Davidson

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I first met William Rees-Mogg more than three decades ago. I was back in the U.K. for a summer trip through the Highland haunts of my father's ancestors. After a week overdosing on oatmeal and haggis, however, I was ready to enjoy some English summer. When I was lucky enough to cage an invitation to join a weekend house party at White Barn, the country home of Sir Philip and Lady Goodhart, I jumped at the chance.

The Goodharts had graciously provided me with lodgings when I was at Oxford. Their estate at the top of Boar’s Hill overlooking Oxford was just barely within the range required to satisfy the university's peculiar residency requirement. To meet degree qualifications, one must sleep within six miles of Carfax, the central square of Oxford.

Fittingly, as William and I were to become collaborators and co-authors, our first discussion was about books. William had just left The Times of London as editor-in-chief and had taken up a new career as an antiquarian bookseller, trading through a Pall Mall bookstore, Pickering & Chatto. It was a task for which he was well suited as he knew a prodigious amount about books and intellectual history.

As it happened, I had been in Edinburgh a few days earlier where I visited the University of Edinburgh Press in hope of finding a straggling copy of the 200th anniversary edition of Adam Ferguson's “An Essay on the History of Civil Society.”

Unhappily, however, the book was out of print. I was advised that the only way to obtain a copy would be to seek out an early edition from an antiquarian bookseller. When I encountered William Rees-Mogg at the country house party, I seized on the good fortune to recount my adventures in search of Ferguson's fine book, which I had coveted ever since reading excerpts from it at the Bodleian library when I was at Oxford.

With very little coaxing, William kindly agreed to search out an old copy for me. Within a matter of weeks I was the proud owner of a well-preserved first edition. If I recall rightly, I paid 1,000 pounds. It was one of the best purchases I ever made because it helped initiate a friendship and long intellectual partnership.

Within a few months, William and I had embarked on a newsletter publishing project that was eventually to evolve into a collaboration in writing three books: “Blood in the Streets,” “The Great Reckoning,” and “The Sovereign Individual.”

For a senior figure in the establishment, Lord Rees-Mogg was a remarkably open-minded libertarian and I would say something of a free spirit.

He was not the least bit shy about joining me in making some outlandish predictions: At a time when the Cold War still seemed to be going strong, we told the world that the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. When Newsweek dismissed our claim that communism was on its last legs, and that there could be another 1929-style collapse, as “an unthinking attack on reason,” Lord Rees-Mogg chuckled with amusement. He seemed to genuinely enjoy tweaking the establishment in which he was well ensconced. He knew many of the great figures of his time, but was by no means persuaded that all was right with the world.

The public got a rare glance at this libertarian aspect of his personality when Rees-Mogg championed Mick Jagger after the latter received a harsh prison sentence for a trifling drug offense in 1967. In a Times editorial entitled “Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel?” (borrowing a line from Alexander Pope), he called upon the courts to free Jagger, a first offender who was apprehended with a French seasickness pill in his pocket. As Rees-Mogg recalled, “it was on open sale in France but required a prescription in England.”

It was later alleged that the Rolling Stones were targeted by a narcotics informant who said he was recruited by the U.K. and U.S. federal governments to help set up the drug bust for the purpose of causing the Stones legal problems. Rees-Mogg's editorial led to a rapid reversal of Jagger's conviction, although it did not altogether obviate legal problems for the band as both Jagger and Keith Richards had difficulties obtaining visas for years thereafter because of having been convicted of drug-related offenses. Still, Jagger later told Rees-Mogg's youngest daughter Annunziata that her father had “saved his career.”

I don't know how much Lord Rees-Mogg did for Mick Jagger's career, but he did a lot for mine. He was a very good writer. He could rapidly and lucidly turn out copy, scribbling longhand on a yellow pad almost as quickly as if he had been a stenographer taking dictation. I struggled and worked hard to formulate my contributions to our books together. He always seemed to assimilate with ease ideas I struggled to form.

If I do say so myself, even now some 14 years after the publication of our most recent collaboration, “The Sovereign Individual,” it can still be read without embarrassment.

When I heard the sad news that William was gravely ill, I spent a moment reviewing some of the reviews, one of which reported words that William originally wrote:“Modern society is vulnerable. As vulnerable as the plate-glass towers of the World Trade Center.” Three years before 9/11 he foresaw the vulnerability with clarity. As the reviewer put it, it was “a startling sentence. Why haven't the flakes of the world adopted this book as a new mystical text to replace the obvious cases of Nostradamus? Any book that has such tragic insights on the first page is worth exploring.”

Strangely, although our books were largely about the impact of technology in changing society, I believe that Lord Rees-Mogg was the only man I've ever known who lived through so much of the 20th Century without ever driving an automobile. In some ways, he was an anachronism, an old-fashioned gentleman in a not so genteel world. I will miss him.

Editor's Note: See also "Lord Rees-Mogg, Former Chairman of Newsmax, Dies at 84."

James Dale Davidson is an economist and co-author of three books with William Rees-Mogg. His latest book, “Brazil Is the New America: How Brazil Offers Upward Mobility in a Collapsing World,” was published in August. Davidson is also a contributor to Newsmax’s Financial Intelligence Report, and a member of the Newsmax Board.


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