Does Michael Gove exist?

Glen Newey

Does Michael Gove exist? It’s a poser of the kind that vexes philosophers who scratch their oxters over puzzles such as the nature of holes: does the hole in your pocket exist as some thing, over and above a sheer absence of fabric, or is it really zilch, with the striking attributes that nothing boasts (such as a lack of physical location)? Here, as often in philosophy, the big if is whether everyday chatter can survive a hard look at how things are. And when it comes to Gove-chat, that must be more than doubtful.

Take, for instance, that effortlessly gormless mug, which looks so nearly human but is presumably computer-generated. Since this snap was ostensibly taken, thirty years ago, Gove actually seems to have grown younger. From looking like a teenager with prostate trouble, he now resembles a sexagenarian third-former. Maybe next he’ll fall prey to acne, or become obsessed with Cradle of Filth and start wearing indigo lipstick. Indeed, Gove might be the humanoid avatar of 'Eugene Goostman', the chatbot recently reported as having passed the Turing test by posing as a 13-year-old boy and being accepted as such. When he was about that age Gove wrote a hagiography of Michael Portillo, then the last hope of the stern unbending Tories. Polly’s star faded, but Gove’s went supernova after he jacked in journalism for politics. He now attends Notting Hill soirées, in dweebish conclave with gilded ex-youth.

Further grounds for doubting Gove’s existence come from what might be thought an unimpeachable source – his mother, who according to the Daily Record can never get hold of him. For her, the Record tells us, he exists primarily as an answerphone message; if only the rest of us could get that close. Then there’s his name, like an obsolete and clearly factitious past participle (And yea, thou gove the Lord thy brethren in supplication etc.); indeed, one of Gove's brainwaves was to place a King James Bible in every school in the land. And there’s his complete absence from the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence, despite being a Scot and one of only two Tories in the Cabinet from outside metroland (the other is Eric Pickles). One sees why braying Etonians don’t front the No campaign, on the grounds that just about anything that trips from their curled lips will boost the Yes vote; Gove, however, is not Bullingdonian, but Aberdonian.

Other gobbets of Gove’s biog betray failure by his creators to stick to a plausible script. He’s reportedly a C of E communicant but Presbyterian, a Unionist who downplays his north British origins, and weirdest of all, a ‘proud Zionist’, as if he were an Israeli Voortrekker on the Golan. And, above all, there’s Gove’s policy squibs, which proliferate like the outputs of those websites that randomly generate Daily Mail headlines. Although a fan of raptor capitalism, Gove’s also big on tradition, enraptured by olde Englishe and that great nationalised industry, the monarchy (he wanted taxpayers, in the trough of austerity, to fork over £60 million for a new royal yacht). He’s fond of something he calls ‘our island story’ and thinks the British Empire was pretty good for all concerned, with its proud traditions of slavery and massacre. He fights the good fight for English – really, just English – literature, against all those anglophone colonials who’ve dabbled in the writing game; for these purposes, presumably, Aberdeen falls within the M25.

As Education Secretary Gove has expanded to fill ever-baggier briefs. His free schools brainchild aimed to drive up standards; their failure rate in Ofsted inspections is triple the national average. Meanwhile fee-paying schools dodge Ofsted and have their own Independent Schools Inspectorate which, as with the old Press Complaints Commission, is rather like getting criminal activity policed by cosa nostra. After nixing snap school inspections, against the advice of Ofsted, Gove U-turned, and as a diversionary tactic sounded the alarm over ‘Trojan Horse’ Islamic entryism in Birmingham schools (couldn’t he have culled a cliché from English literature?). The home secretary put down her Russell & Bromleys after Gove had fingered Charles Farr, her counter-terrorism adviser, for having let the horse through the school gate.

Farr's stitch-up was via anonymous press briefings which could not possibly have escaped the event horizon that is Gove's office. As usual, the education secretary exerts a gravitational force that is strongest when least visible, its centre the man who is never there.


  • 11 June 2014 at 8:26pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Gove gave every school a bible: I don't want to give my name, but I do want to confess that I once stole a King James bible from my old boys grammar school, which has since been demolished and replaced by a large academy.

    There was a large cupboard full of bibles at the back of a classroom and they were neglected. I am not superstitious, but I thought I might be struck dead.

    Some years later, I still have the bible inscribed with the address of every house I have lived in, including a period of grinding anomie in North Wembley and another of turmoil and confusion in Notting Hill.

    More interestingly, however, I once took my passport for ID purposes to the DVLA office in Sidcup and left it there by mistake. A few days later, I received a carefully worded letter from them saying they had something which may be of advantage to me. I returned to Sidcup to retrieve my passport.

    I have therefore been to Sidcup to get my papers that tell me who I am, like the character in that play by Harold Pinter.

    I know this has gone round the houses a bit, but I wonder if Sir Michael Gove can boast that? Also, is he familiar with Viz magazine as well as the King James?

    - Simon Wood, Camberwell

    • 15 June 2014 at 9:01pm
      Paul Andrews says: @ Simon Wood
      Not only did Gove present every school with a King James Bible, he presented them with Oxford UP's sumptuous facsimile of the original 1611 edition, with all its vagaries of 17th century printing, punctuation and orthography (Book of Pfaulmes anyone?). This from a Secretary of State who wants to promote the 'correct' use of English

  • 11 June 2014 at 10:02pm
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    Michael Gove is SCOTTISH? Oh my dear god, I apologise on behalf of my nation. (Mind you, after independence you can keep him.)

  • 12 June 2014 at 5:11pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    What the Lord gove, the Lord taketh away. Thank heaven for that.

  • 12 June 2014 at 8:50pm
    Philarious says:
    Does this blogpost exist?

  • 17 June 2014 at 10:56am
    Rikkeh says:
    I really wish that critics of Gove wouldn't start out with an ad hominem attack on the way he looks. There are so many rich seams of actual failures on his part to mine instead.

    I often fall into the trap with Gove myself. But every time I do, I instantly regret it as I realise that everything I say about the physical Gove undermines to the listener everything I say about the political Gove.

    • 4 July 2014 at 5:21pm
      John Cowan says: @ Rikkeh
      Yes. It's like, on our side the Pond, the never-ending talk among the left of the stupidity of G.W. Bush. Absurd. Air forces do not make fighter pilots of stupid men: those planes are expensive, to say no more. Like a certain character in a Peter Wimsey novel, Bush was shamming stupid, and doing it very well; it obscured for a critical period all talk of his actual failures.

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