Why Gove annoys the chattering classes
Education secretary Michael Gove upsets the liberal set because he is prepared to lead rather than conform.
There’s always been something a little bit different about Lib-Con education secretary Michael Gove. And it’s not just the impeccable manners and charming attentiveness to which his countless broadsheet profilers never cease to draw attention. Rather, what marks Gove out from many of his parliamentary contemporaries is something a little bit, well, old-fashioned: he actually exhibits political leadership. That is, he is committed to a particular idea - in this case, of education - and he shows a determination to realise it in policymaking practice.
Compare him to the ministers responsible for other government departments - health or energy and climate change, for example. They seem to be mere placeholders. Their particular identities seem largely irrelevant to the department’s work (such as it is). Yes, they put their name to reports, filled to the brim with thought-defying, bullet-pointed lists of policymaking objectives that might or might not come to pass, and they appear on television to offer soundbitten platitudes in the hope that nothing controversial slips out. But beyond a determination to avoid bad PR, and sometimes, just sometimes, to generate a bit of good PR, their commitment seems principally to be to their careers not to a political idea.
But Gove is different. He is now instantly identifiable with his ministerial brief. And no wonder: he has actually taken responsibility for reforming education in the UK. Not for him the Teflon jargon of ‘sustainability’ or ‘modernisation’ deployed by some of his colleagues. Gove, from the start, has been extraordinarily clear about how he wants to improve the state of education in the UK.
He started, of course, with the Academies Act in July 2010, which aimed to free up state schools from local-council control. Or as Gove put it: ‘This government believes that teachers and headteachers, not politicians and bureaucrats, should control schools and have more power over how they are run.’ Then came the headline-grabbing substance of his educational vision: the attempt to address grade escalation and, more generally, to improve the rigour and quality of what is actually being taught.
Gove’s plan to replace GCSEs - the modular, coursework-heavy exam taken by 14- to 16-year-olds in the UK - with the harder English Baccalaureate Certificate based on a single, final exam now looks uncertain given his recent climbdown on some elements of his plan, but there is no doubting the clarity of his impulse: ‘Exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all.’ Or as he put in February last year: ‘Education is like trying to run up a down escalator. There are some uncomfortable decisions that will have to be taken. There will be years when, because we are going to make exams tougher, the number of people passing will fall.’
His determination to change the form of education has been matched by his determination to change its content. He has promised to reintroduce difficult algebra back into the maths curriculum and written essays into the English curriculum. And, in the past few weeks, as part of his plans to return secondary education to a core of more traditional subjects - such as geography and languages - he has outlined plans for a reform of the history curriculum, moving it away from its rather jumpy, supposedly appealing focus on Hitler and the ‘Wild West’ of America (1848-1895) towards, as Gove put it, ’ the linear narrative of British history and Britain’s impact on the world and the world’s impact on Britain’.
None of this is uncontroversial or undeserving of criticism, of course. But what shines through is Gove’s commitment to a particular vision of education, and his preparedness to argue his case, to lead on that commitment. This became clear in an interview with the Spectator, in which he contrasted his political attitude to those concerned with a ‘better ground game’, in other words, tactics. ‘My approach’, he said, ‘is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as possible’.
And here we come to the other side of the Gove phenomenon. The very thing that marks Gove out from many of his Westminster contemporaries - his doughty commitment to arguing for and realising specific political ideas - is the very thing that raises the hackles of the complacent liberal punditariat, used to, as they are, a bland, conformist political landscape. To this right-thinking clique, Gove’s willingness to change things according to an idea of how he (and the many who support him) think they ought to be is nothing less than a provocation. His clearly articulated plans don’t reach the ears of such commentators, they tickle the back of their throats. The resulting bile is flecked with little more than name-calling.
So, for one New Statesman columnist, Gove’s proposals for the curriculum are up there with Stalin’s attempt to have Russian school children learn of the ‘the triumphant cavalcade of national heroes’. The Independent‘s Yasmin Alibhai Brown prefers to liken Gove’s educational plans to the rather less-than-progressive politics of the Taliban. ‘Gove is a ruthlessly reactionary education secretary’, she shrills, ‘a neocon and man with a mission to re-educate Britons’. A Guardian columnist is equally angered by Gove’s attempt to actually do something through politics. He is ‘destroying our school system’, she writes with all the perspective of someone unfamiliar with having her preconceptions challenged. ‘Gove is a hawkish new-con’, she continues, her big book of political labels at the ready. ‘If he were in power, you’d expect him to be bombing Iran… The education system is now his battlefield. He is building a system fit for the nineteenth century. In the name of standards, the poor will continue to be deprived. Even of imagination.’
Given the outrage his policymaking prompts, you would think Gove was reintroducing workhouses, compulsory caning and a blind-eye to fagging - not advocating an exam-based assessment model and a curriculum that challenges young people rather than patronises them. This hyperbolic response to Gove’s willingness to do a bit of politics provides a depressing snapshot of the level of political argument in this country, the impoverishment of the national conversation. In place of debate, there is now little more than a reflexive shrilling, an eagerness to chuck around as many tired left-right pejoratives as possible, be it neocon, new-con or Stalinist.
It’s also in this context, that the same coterie of self-styled left-wing commentators has made a huge fuss of the use of the @Toryeducation Twitter account by a couple of Gove’s special advisors to take irreverent potshots at Gove’s critics. Given that politicians have long leaked defamatory gossip about rivals to receptive journalists, who in turn present said gossip as fact to the public, quite why certain commentators are making a song and dance about @Toryeducation, which is at least open about its political biases, is unclear. Or it would be if the desire to malign Gove by association wasn’t so clear. The same goes for the hyped story of the civil servant given a £25,000 payoff having accused members of Gove’s team of making him feel ‘marginalised, undermined and bullied’. Again, it seems the very qualities that one might once have expected of a politician, not least a determination and a willingness to lead, even if that means upsetting civil servants, are in the process of being demonised.
The overdetermined ire currently being provoked by Gove for daring to show political leadership on an issue is not without its irony. Outside the domain of education, when Gove makes an objectionable pronouncement that chimes with the prejudices of the liberal classes, there is just nodded agreement. So, when he suggested that society was too willing ‘to put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children’, eyebrows from Westminster to Hampstead remained firmly unraised. And no wonder. For the crowd baying for Gove’s head on an exam desk, the idea that the state, despite the palpable failings of the care system, knows better than parents - or at least those deemed bad parents - what’s best for their children is taken as a given. In Gove’s diminution of biological rights, a lefty, liberalish, not to mention paternalist disdain for the lower orders finds an ally.
Gove, like his colleagues then, is far from above criticism. What is striking is that where he conforms to the worst prejudices of our era, criticism is absent. And yet when he dissents, when he steps out from the pack to lead on an issue, he provokes nothing more than blind fury.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.