Tuesday 15 July 2014

Nine reasons to like Michael Gove

So farewell then, Michael Gove, reshuffled from the Department of Education to become government Chief Whip. I hope The Spectator’s James Forsyth is wrong in arguing that ‘the move is a big blow to the education reform agenda’, and that his colleague Isabel Hardman is more accurate when she writes:
Left-wing teachers who opposed Gove’s reforming agenda might be celebrating, but it is absurd to suggest that his move to chief whip – itself a big job – is a ‘scalp’ for the unions. Gove’s reforms have already been enacted. He has got everything done that he wanted. He has succeeded, and can move on.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of Michael Gove. I get irritated at the avalanche of abuse directed at him, and at what Frank Furedi correctly identifies as ‘Govephobia’, the way that expressing hatred of Gove ‘works as a kind of password that grants one entry into the inner circle of polite society’, a ritualised way of ‘establishing one’s moral distance from the modern personification of evil’. As anyone who works in the sector will be aware, this is particularly true of educators, at whatever level:
It’s as if Govephobia now provides many teachers and educators with a kind of corporate identity. The very mention of Gove’s name in a meeting is guaranteed to raise a collective smirk and the knowing shaking of heads. Saying something awful about Gove provides a person with the shining moral status that comes with being on ‘the right side’. Not only do you have permission to despise Gove – you are expected to express your emotions publicly whenever you can.
Of course, implacable hostility towards individuals who symbolise everything you dislike in the opposing party is not unusual in the tribal world of British politics, and it helps to have a single syllable surname that fits easily on a placard and can be spat out with appropriate venom on demos. (Mind you, the Left’s dislike of Tories like Gove is as nothing compared to the hatred they reserve for one of their own who is perceived to have betrayed the true gospel: think of the malice with which they utter that other single-syllable name – ‘Blair’.) 

But it’s when people who should know better join in with the ritual Gove abuse that I get particularly annoyed. I’m talking about those who, like me, are passionate about education and about extending educational opportunity, but for some reason see Michael Gove, who is equally passionate about these things, as an enemy rather than a kindred spirit. I’m not talking here about legitimate criticisms of Gove’s policies, some of which I share, but about sweeping dismissals of his entire reform agenda and often willful and ignorant misunderstandings of his intentions. In this category I would place those who seem to think Gove’s aim is to shore up educational privilege and deny access to learning to the poorest in society – when the opposite is actually true. It’s as if some people, blinded and deafened by a tribal dislike of everything Tory, are unable to see what’s in front of their eyes or to hear what the man is actually saying.

So, rather than getting into further endless and mostly pointless arguments on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I’d share with you nine reasons why I like Michael Gove:

He has unashamedly continued the reform agenda set in motion by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis. Now, when New Labour were in power, I was often critical of aspects of their educational policy. I thought the emphasis on choice was a chimera when what most parents, including me, really wanted was the guarantee of a good, local school. However, I’ve changed my mind and have come to believe, with Michael Gove, that real reform was not going to occur – standards and aspirations for all children were not going to be substantially raised – while local authorities maintained their monopolistic stranglehold on state education, and that freeing schools from LEA control – whether by converting them to academies, or founding new ‘free’ schools – was perhaps the best way forward.

More generally, Michael Gove is an admirer of Tony Blair, and has said that he regards Blair’s memoir A Journey as a kind of manual for government. I know this won’t endear him to those on the Left who still regard Blair as a traitor to the good old cause (rather than the most popular Labour prime minister ever, the man who introduced the minimum wage, devolution, increased education and health spending exponentially, brought peace to Northern Ireland, freed Sierra Leone and Kosovo, etc…..), but still…

Gove is a passionate opponent of the knowledge-lite leveling-down low-aspiration culture that has gripped the education sector for the past quarter of a century, and that has become entrenched in the teacher training colleges, teaching unions and the Department of Education. Instead, he believes in raising educational standards for all children, not just the privileged, and in extending educational opportunities, as a means of improving social mobility and overcoming inequality.

Unlike some of the philistines and utilitarians who have filled the post of Education Secretary, Gove actually believes in the value of education for its own sake. Remember his brave defence of teaching ‘French lesbian poetry’ in response to the Gradgrindian businessman who scoffed at the uselessness of the humanities? He reads books too – proper books – including the kind of books people on the Left like to read: for example, he’s been known to quote from Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism (see the video at the end of this post). 

As the above shows, this is a man who understands the Left. I think I read that he supported Labour as an undergraduate. Indeed, some would argue that, in other times, he would have been a natural Labour politician.

Moving away from education, Michael Gove has written, in Celsius 7/7, one of the best books you’ll come across on terrorism, the Middle East, and the West’s response. He’s also on the Council of the Henry Jackson Society, and anti-totalitarian leftists and liberals should find in him a natural and sympathetic ally. That’s why some of us think he would make an excellent foreign secretary.

He’s genuinely funny. I know some like to mock his pratfalls, his odd facial expressions and, most recently, his love of rap, but they miss the point: he’s sending himself up. This is a politician who most definitely can laugh at himself. The first time I saw him face-to-face was in a hotel corridor, engaged in a balloon fight with one of his young children. Which brings me on to:

He’s a nice guy. OK, not a reason to like his politics, but I thought I’d include it anyway. The above mentioned encounter took place when we found ourselves two doors along from the Gove family in a Portuguese hotel a few years ago. He wasn’t so well known then, and I hadn’t really been following his career until that point, so I didn't pluck up the courage to speak to him. But I had the opportunity to observe him over a number of days, at the next table in the restaurant, reading by the pool (we were reading the same Lisbon-based thriller,) and he came across as an affable and likeable family man.

And following on from the above – he’s also a Lusophile. As he once said, a love of Portugal is the only thing he has in common with George Galloway. Me too.

A number of Gove's qualities are on display in this very civilised discussion with David Aaronovitch, who makes an ideal interlocutor. Pity the same can't be said for the people asking questions at the end, who respond to Gove's thoughtful attempts to reach out to his left-leaning education sector audience with crass political pointscoring. I've no doubt in my mind who has the better arguments.