The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
I'd love to be closer to Sarah Vine. Not just because she's married to Michael Gove, though I'm as interested as everyone else in his very uncertain career prospects. The degree of support she's given his twin campaigns to undermine the European Union and Boris Johnson has made me almost pruriently curious about her own power. And her weekly column for the Daily Mail, though revealing in its way, doesn't illuminate enough. It’s padded out with domestic anecdotes, to be sure, but they come with too many platitudes and skincare tips for my taste. But a significant social opportunity has just opened up – because last week, Sarah (I feel I can now call her that) reached out on Facebook.
The Queen’s Speech has all the pomposity and solemnity of a panto you’re not allowed to laugh at. This bowdlerises its political content, grimly apparent were it delivered by a nerd in a lounge suit. Elizabeth lumbers in, glazed and jowly, with the familiar cast of attendant lords, including her husband, her heir and her heir’s duchess, who’s kitted out with a purple sash that could be left over from the Ukip election campaign. As ever the queen herself looks as if her breakfast porridge had too much mogadon in it. Since she always reads her script as if she were reciting the E numbers on a packet of jelly, it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, she thinks about it. The custodian of the speech is a nerd usually seen in a lounge suit, Michael Gove, who from journeyman beginnings as a Times hack and a Commons expenses home-flipper, has now hit it big as lord chancellor. Yesterday he got to try out his new 18th-century chancellorial garb.
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.
Schoolchildren everywhere cheat in exams. But British and American universities are said to be especially worried by a rise in fraudulent applications from Chinese students. In China, meanwhile, some schools are going to extreme lengths to prevent cheating on the gao kao, the national college entrance examinations.
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.
In 2007, the summer after I graduated from university, I applied to be a marker for Edexcel, the GCSE exam board. The selection process involved online tests and training days, but wasn’t particularly rigorous. I think everyone in my cohort was accepted. We were all invited to a team-building lunch in Bloomsbury, where we met the people who would oversee our marking. My boss was a retired lecturer from Australia who joined Edexcel, he told me, to keep his mind sprightly, and because he believed in maintaining standards. I told him I’d applied to be a marker because I was broke.
‘There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit,’ Michael Gove told the Leveson Inquiry last week. ‘I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.’ In Southwark, we’ve got used to seeing local schools be taken over by the Harris Federation, the chain set up by the Carpetright mogul Baron Harris of Peckham, responsible at the moment for 13 academies and with a couple of free schools on the way.
Followers of Michael Gove’s career might have missed its latest highlights. The cabinet has now decided to repeal the rights of parents to oppose the expansion of ‘popular’ schools and, despite the embarrassingly vociferous opposition of parents at Downhills primary school in Tottenham, seems determined to part the school from the LEA. Parental choice is allowed when parents support the Conservative Party and not allowed when they don’t. The Lib Dems appear to have no quarrel with this. No doubt it is their definition of community politics.
It is difficult to know how to take recent reports that Niall Ferguson has been recruited to overhaul, or to help overhaul, the history syllabus in schools. For a start it seems an odd way for the new education secretary, Michael Gove, to announce it, from the audience at a talk given by Ferguson at the Hay Literary Festival last month. It clearly took Ferguson by surprise: ‘I am looking forward to your call.’ It sounds as if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea of Gove’s, taken without consultation, which was surely improper. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the idea is hardly less so, bearing in mind his lack of experience in this field.