Gove's Enemies of Promise

Inigo Thomas

In yesterday's Mail on Sunday, Michael Gove explained what he thinks is holding back education in Britain: communism, Marxism, anyone who is against his curriculum – that sort of thing. ‘I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools,’ the headline ran. ‘Education Secretary berates “the new enemies of promise” for opposing his plans.’ The article began:

Exactly 75 years ago the great English writer and thinker, Cyril Connolly, published his most famous book – The Enemies Of Promise. Connolly’s work explores the ways in which the talented individuals of his time were prevented from achieving their full potential.

As precis go, that barely merits a mark of any kind: it could just as well be said of, say, Homage to Catalonia, also published ‘exactly’ 75 years ago. Enemies of Promise (no ‘the’), as anyone who has read it will know, is part literary criticism, part autobiography, part lament for Connolly's own lack of achievement, which he blamed on himself. He was candid: he called himself ‘a lazy, irresolute person, overvain and overmodest, unsure in my judgments and unable to finish what I have begun.’ The enemies were mostly of Connolly’s own making; he called the book an ‘ideology-autobiography’. Auden wrote to him after its publication:

I think ‘E. of P.’ is the best English book of criticism since the war, and more than Eliot or Wilson you really write about writing in the only way which is interesting to anyone except academics, as a real occupation like banking or fucking with all its attendant egotism, boredom, excitement and terror. I do congratulate you.

Perhaps the book’s best-known line is: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Which makes it the more surprising that a secretary for education would refer to Enemies of Promise in an article on children’s schooling. Another of Connolly’s fears was journalism, which he thought interfered too much with a writer's thinking. ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,’ he wrote. 'Journalism what will be read once.’ Gove in his Mail piece doesn't once refer to poetry or to literature or to a novel, but he does write about the importance of a 'stock of knowledge' that children should have, so that they can ‘communicate in formal settings, appreciate the arguments in newspapers’ leading articles and understand the context behind big political decisions.’ Learning to read the newspaper – you'd hardly say that was one of Connolly's friends of promise, or anyone else's either.

‘The fight against the Enemies of Promise,’ Gove writes, ‘is a fight for our children's future. It's a fight against ideology, ignorance and poverty of aspirations, a struggle to make opportunity more equal for all our children.’ Pretending to have read books you haven't read – perhaps that’s something else the secretary of state wants to promote.


  • 25 March 2013 at 11:50am
    Bernard Porter says:
    Someone needs to do a proper hatchet-job on Gove. He could be dangerous. I watched him at the Leveson inquiry: self-confident, smug, simplistic, an ideological zealot and terribly wrong in his history (which is my field). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been irritated by his sheer errors of fact or deficiencies of reasoning; and he’s in charge of our schools, for God’s sake. What did he do before politics? A very young Times leader-writer, I believe. That’s no preparation for real life. (Or, indeed, for Times leader-writing.) Of course we’re all too polite and fair-minded to mention his silly face; but I wonder if that’s the reason we’re not taking him seriously? Anyway, this piece is a good start.

    • 25 March 2013 at 5:08pm
      David Gordon says: @ Bernard Porter
      Absolutely. Historians are doing a good job at demolishing him (for example, see the comments by a blogger sailing under the name Sikandarji (indeed a professional histrian) following an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian - of all places - in which Jenkins praises Gove's idea of history - but the rest of us need to wield the axe too. If my discipline were the academic study of education, I would be seething with rage at the haughty dismissal of the "100 educators" letter in the Independent last week. If any LRB reader has not viewed the horrors of the "Tory Education News" Twitter feed (@toryeducation) I urge them to do so, but only with a vomitarium closely at hand.

      We shouldn't mention Gove's silly face, that's not his fault, but it is his fault that he is "self-confident, smug, simplistic, an ideological zealot and terribly wrong".

    • 26 March 2013 at 2:28pm
      Sadiq says: @ Bernard Porter
      It's disappointing to see someone asking for a "hatchet-job," however justifiable the target.

    • 27 March 2013 at 12:55pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ Sadiq
      Agreed - 'hatchet job' was the wrong expression. I've just looked it up and see that it implies unfairness and even malice. I didn't mean that. Careless of me.

  • 25 March 2013 at 6:11pm
    Markus Eichhorn says:
    A vomitorium? So we should stay near the stadium exit? When joining a thread on education, beware pedants ;o)

    • 25 March 2013 at 6:39pm
      David Gordon says: @ Markus Eichhorn
      I am in the good Dr Johnson's company in pleading "ignorance ... pure ignorance". Mind you, a stadium-passage might be about the right size to cope with the volume of vomitus that the aforementioned Twitter feed might provoke.

  • 25 March 2013 at 7:26pm
    C. D. Rose says:

  • 26 March 2013 at 3:50pm
    Mark Berry says:
    William Dalrymple wrote a devastating review of Gove's Celsius 7/7 in, believe it or not, The Sunday Times (24 September 2006):

    A prominent example of the sort of pundit who has spoon-fed neocon mythologies to the British public for the past few years is Michael Gove. Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture – in Celsius 7/7 he just takes the line of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented his being billed, on his book’s dust jacket, “one of Britain’s leading writers and thinkers on terrorism

    Gove’s book is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any book I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject. Thus, we are solemnly told, for example, that during the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, the Palestinian population from Jenin to Hebron was “herded into, and kept penned up inside, refugee camps”, an idea as novel as it is comically ridiculous and ahistorical. During this period, towns such as Ramallah became sleepy backwaters, quite free from the land seizure and apartheid policies of Arab-free Israeli settlements and Arab-free road networks that followed the Israeli occupation – realities entirely at odds with what Gove calls Israel’s “culture of equality.

    Gove rewrites history when he alleges that it was the “appeasement” of the Palestinians represented by the Oslo peace process that encouraged Al-Qaeda to launch the 9/11 attacks. In fact it was the violent repression that followed Israel’s unilateral ending of peace talks that formed the background to the attacks. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, has written that the repressive campaign waged against the second intifada by Sharon in Autumn 2002 provided Al-Qaeda’s opportunity: as the corpses of dead children piled up, Al-Zawahiri realised that here was the rallying cry that could unite the Muslim world…

    Gove is also quite wrong that few Muslims and Islamists really mind what Israel does to the Palestinians and Lebanese, and that it is “what Israel is, rather than what Israel does” that really provokes resistance. Instead, Israeli violence is the principal cause of anti-American anger – Bin Laden has written that it was the sight of US support for the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982 that initially radicalised him: “I still remember the blood torn limbs, the women and children massacred. Houses were being destroyed and tower blocks collapsing…As I looked on those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America.

    Throughout Gove’s book, neocon myths are reheated and served up, despite being discredited most recently by the 2005 CIA report…Saddam, believes Gove, “invited Islamists into Iraq”; “was determined to pursue his WMD programme”, and “dreamt of emulating” 9/11, strongly suggesting the central lie of Saddam’s non-existent links with 9/11…

    All terrorist violence is contemptible. But just because we condemn does not mean that we should not strive to analyze accurately. It is exactly the sort of woolly elisions and linkages that Gove indulges in that have got us into the trouble we are now in. None of this would matter if Gove were still ring-fenced within his op-ed-page padded cell; horrifyingly, he now sits in the Conservative shadow cabinet and is credited with having influence on Conservative policy in the region. Worse still, this book was named as the one most taken by British MPs on their summer holidays. Blair was bad enough, the blind leading the blind; now it seems the madmen have taken over the asylum.

  • 28 March 2013 at 3:51am
    Robin Richardson says:
    I agree strongly with the general thrust of the arguments in this thread. I’d just like to add, though, uncomfortable and discomforting though this is, that in the current context my enemy’s enemy is not entirely my friend. Namely, the letter by 100 academics in the Independent which had so excited and rattled Gove’s office contained some quite serious omissions. It spoke out against Gradgrindery and a Trivial Pursuits curriculum, yes, and this was important and timely. But it contained little of the passion for a better society that animated Dickens in his attack on Facts, Facts, Facts, and did not indicate commitment to, for example, the values and concerns crystallised and embodied in the Equality Act. Gove’s accusation that the letter was Marxist was silly and hysterical. But, if only. The letter ought to have made explicit reference to issues of social justice and equality, but alas it didn’t.

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