The Demented Dalek

Richard J. Evans

  • Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett
    Biteback, 422 pp, £20.00, July, ISBN 978 1 78590 440 0

We’ve got form, Michael Gove and I. ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship,’ he told the Daily Mail in 2014, after I had attacked him for claiming that Britain had fought the First World War for democracy, ‘but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’ Actually – and Gove’s new biographer Owen Bennett might have pointed this out – all I’d said was that with tsarist Russia as Britain’s major ally, with 40 per cent of British adult males denied the vote until the Reform Act of 1918, and with a German enemy that might not have been wholly democratic but certainly wasn’t a dictatorship, his claim that by entering the war Britain showed that it was ‘committed to defending the Western liberal order’ wasn’t borne out by the facts.

This wasn’t the first time we’d crossed swords. When Gove was appointed secretary of state for education in 2010, he launched a full-scale campaign against the way history was being taught in schools, claimed that historians were ‘trashing our past’, and declared that a new national school history curriculum would get pupils studying ‘our island story’ in a connected narrative based on the rote-learning of names and dates, particularly those of kings and queens and battles and wars.

I pointed out in these pages that history shouldn’t at any level consist of cramming pupils with facts, let alone facts selected to make up a celebratory patriotic narrative stretching from Alfred and the cakes to the imperial triumphs of ‘Clive of India’ (Gove’s term): it was an academic discipline, like physics or economics, it had its methods just as they did, and central to what teachers sought to convey to their pupils was the ability to consider rival interpretations of the past and to reach their own views on them through a critical analysis of the sources on which they were based.[*]

In order to draw up a new curriculum, Gove had commissioned a series of what he thought were like-minded professional historians to advise him. Niall Ferguson was one; Simon Schama was hired to convene a committee to produce a draft. But Gove wasn’t satisfied. Ferguson wanted the curriculum to have a global dimension, which wasn’t what Gove wanted at all; the proposals put forward by Schama’s committee also deviated too much from the prescriptive and celebratory patriotic story he intended pupils to learn. So Gove ditched them all and wrote his own curriculum, more or less on the back of an envelope. The result was an outcry from history teachers across the country, backed by institutions such as the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association (the national organisation of history teachers). Gove convened a meeting of Tory historians but the message he got was the same: the proposed curriculum was both unteachable and unlearnable.

Ferguson had stated in one of his early articles in defence of Gove that it was safe to say I wouldn’t be among those consulted about the new curriculum. But he was wrong. Gove sent his special political adviser to see me. A slim, balding, casually dressed, youngish man came into my Cambridge office and flopped into an armchair. ‘Well’, he said, ‘we’ve fucked up, haven’t we?’ It was Dominic Cummings.

This wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Special political advisers usually dress fairly formally and don’t use that kind of language about the policies favoured by their political masters. But I couldn’t help agreeing with him. History, I said, had among other things the aim of producing independent-minded adults who could read critically and think for themselves. ‘I’ll buy that,’ Cummings said. We plunged into a lively discussion that went on for an hour or more. I formed the impression that he was someone who pursued his own line of thought irrespective of what convention dictated. He had, after all, I realised, studied history at university himself.

Eventually, Gove was forced to withdraw his proposed curriculum, introducing instead a far more wide-ranging, far less prescriptive programme that looked in most respects pretty much like the one he had tried to replace. He had ‘fucked up’ indeed. When I ran into him at a conference on the curriculum, he was courteous, charming even, despite our differences. But his days as education secretary were numbered.

In a cabinet reshuffle carried out in July 2014, David Cameron moved him to the Whips’ Office. He had become ‘toxic’ to parents and teachers alike. A member of the National Union of Teachers described him as ‘a demented Dalek on speed, who wants to exterminate everything good in education’. His tenure had lurched from crisis to crisis, including the botched axing of the schools building programme begun under Labour, a much publicised U-turn on proposed funding cuts to PE in schools, and the withdrawal and – after widespread protests – reinstatement of financial support for a scheme to distribute free books to children in England.

Where Gove didn’t make one of his customary U-turns as education secretary, the results were often disastrous. In English, for example, the uptake for A Level examinations has fallen by 13 per cent this year, a drop blamed by many teachers on changes he made to the English curriculum which forced pupils studying for the GCSE to memorise quotations and deprived them of the opportunity to develop their own ideas in coursework assignments.

His drive to convert state schools into academies produced yet more anger. He treated professional teachers as enemies of promise and seemed to regard them as part of a leftist establishment that blindly resisted change. As one teachers’ union recorded, ‘time after time he has chased newspaper headlines rather than engage with teachers.’ The result had been ‘the dismantling of the structures which support schools, the antagonism which he displayed to the teaching profession and the increasing evidence of chaos in the bodies he established’. Cameron came to the inevitable conclusion that Gove was ‘more of a liability than an asset’. As for Cummings, he had left his job well before this, firing off an eccentric 250-page memorandum in which he argued that education had little effect on people: their genetic make-up was the decisive influence on their character and abilities.

What made Gove take such an obtusely traditionalist line on education? Why did he think that there was ‘a permanent body of knowledge which should be passed on from generation to generation’ in the country’s schools, and not just in history? Did he really think nobody was generating any new knowledge about history or other academic subjects? Many of his beliefs about education, Bennett argues in this readable and revealing biography, derived from his own experience as a child. His background is unusual for a man who has reached the top echelons of the Conservative Party. Born in Edinburgh on 26 August 1967 to an unmarried 23-year-old cookery demonstrator, he was immediately placed in care. Named Graeme Logan at birth, he was adopted by a childless couple, Ernest and Christine Gove, and his name changed to Michael Andrew Gove.

Gove’s adoptive parents came from a working-class background, rooted in the fishing industry in Aberdeen. By the late 1960s, his father had built up a small fish-processing business, but very early on Michael decided, as he told his father, that ‘this is no use for me. I can’t do this.’ He became a bookish youngster and excelled at school. Recognising his talent, his parents scrimped and saved to send him to Aberdeen’s most prestigious private school, Robert Gordon’s College, where he eventually won a scholarship.

Gove owed his escape from such modest beginnings to his education and, it seems, he has never forgotten it. ‘All schools,’ he believed, even as education secretary decades later, according to Bennett, ‘should be in the image of Robert Gordon’s College.’ State schools were third-rate in comparison. He had achieved prominence and success through a rigorous regime of constant testing, examining and didacticism, through a focus on grammar, spelling and facts, endless facts which, like poems or the periodic table, had to be learned by rote. Progressive, ‘pupil-centred’ education was wrong: what most parents wanted was students sitting in rows in a classroom being dictated to by a teacher. He had benefited from it: why shouldn’t everyone else?

Gove’s experience at school was crucial for his later life in another respect as well: he joined the debating society, found that he had a talent for verbal cut and thrust, and honed it still further when he went to Oxford. He didn’t have the privilege or sense of entitlement of many of his contemporaries – Old Etonians such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson – and he had chosen to read English rather than politics, philosophy and economics, the degree of choice for most aspiring politicians. He was a member of an unfashionable college – Lady Margaret Hall – rather than one of the prestigious old foundations like Balliol or Christ Church, but through sheer ability and a good deal of networking, including the assiduous cultivation of Johnson, he managed to become president of the Oxford Union, the debating club where many parliamentary careers have begun.

His debating style carried over, not always to good effect, into his chosen career in journalism. When he secured a job writing op-eds for the Times, his articles, Bennett observes, ‘became, predictably, mini-Oxford Union speeches. Gove would pick an extreme view on a controversial topic and hold forth, desperate to argue the seemingly unarguable.’ An article he wrote opposing the Good Friday Agreement was ‘classic Gove. Find an argument and take it to the extreme. Use deliberately controversial rhetorical flourishes to essentially shock the reader into agreeing with you.’ The problem with this style, brilliant and entertaining though it could be, was that it wasn’t based on any careful appraisal of the evidence and didn’t pay much attention to political realities.

The fact that he was an outsider, Scottish rather than English, from a modest rather than a privileged background, seems to have generated in him a considerable contempt for the establishment (the ‘Blob’, as he called it), which he regarded as an institutional obstacle to change. In 2005, after his brief career in journalism and a stint on a spectacularly bad late-night satirical programme on Channel 4 (Bennett’s account of it is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book), Gove became an MP, largely at Cameron’s bidding. A ‘moderniser’ in the Conservative Party along with Cameron and Osborne, he was a fervent admirer of Tony Blair for his ability to get things done and adapt to the changing world around him, even if the things Gove wanted to do were rather different. In Cummings, who had worked for a variety of campaign organisations, he recognised a kindred spirit, and since 2007, formally or not, Cummings has been Gove’s right-hand man, his adviser and enforcer, supplying the ruthlessness that Gove himself appears to lack.

As his controversial stint at education showed, Gove didn’t have much idea how to put his ideas into effect. A wordsmith rather than an administrator, he didn’t excel in his role as chief whip either, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his favourite television programme was Game of Thrones. He fared a lot better in his next job, as secretary of state for justice, not least because his predecessor was Chris (‘Failing’) Grayling. Gove, Bennett notes, ‘soon began to find himself fêted by the liberal commentariat as he repealed numerous policies instigated by his predecessor’. As the chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform noted, ‘with his track record at Education, we expected an ideologue, but of course he had come into Education with a blueprint. Because he was appointed to Justice without knowing that was going to happen, he came in open-minded, so he behaved in a completely different way.’ He consulted widely, and made it his priority to reduce reoffending rates by putting rehabilitation at the centre of prison reform. But he was also forced to make a humiliating U-turn when his attempt to cut criminal solicitors’ fees ran into stiff opposition from the Criminal Bar Association.

His otherwise promising stint ran into the sands as the Brexit referendum campaign got underway. Gove had been a critic of the EU ever since his father had been forced to sell up his business following the introduction and extension of the Common Fisheries Policy in the 1970s. For a leading politician to back an idea just because it had taken root in his mind in his childhood, just as with his crusade to turn British schools into imitations of Robert Gordon’s Academy, demonstrated an extraordinary mental rigidity and lack of imagination. Seen in the larger context of Britain’s economy, the Common Fisheries Policy isn’t particularly important, and certainly not worth leaving the EU over. Gove was good at thinking on his feet; why couldn’t he widen his field of vision in this case?

He knew that if he backed Remain he would be seen as cravenly sacrificing his principles to stay in Cameron’s good books. Cameron did his utmost to get his support, but Gove was still resentful at being dismissed from the Department for Education, and loyalty, surely, had to work in both directions. He not only declared for Leave, but also persuaded the Vote Leave campaign not to sack Cummings as its director (some of its grander figures had found his behaviour too much – at one point Cummings had urged Leavers to ‘pick up a baseball bat and smash David Cameron and George Osborne over the head’ with it). He then played a major part in pushing the (genuinely undecided) Johnson to put his considerable weight behind the Leave campaign. The scare tactics the campaign employed – claiming that Turkey was about to become an EU member and making much of the government’s failure to reduce high immigration rates – bore Cummings’s hallmark, but Gove and Johnson went along with it all, though they must have known there was no likelihood at all of Turkey’s joining the EU.

After Cameron’s sudden resignation as prime minister following the vote in favour of Brexit on 23 June 2016, Gove initially threw his weight behind Johnson in the battle for succession. But on 30 June, hours before the deadline by which candidates had to declare their entry in the race, he withdrew his support, declaring he had come to the conclusion that ‘Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead’ – the task of leaving the EU. Johnson, in Gove’s view, lacked the self-discipline and consistency needed to be prime minister (curiously, he seems to have changed his mind since then). Gove decided to stand himself; Johnson immediately pulled out of the race. But Gove’s reputation was damaged by his assassination of Johnson (‘as a traitor, Gove leaves Judas Iscariot standing,’ one Tory MP said) and he was eliminated from the ballot, winning even fewer votes than the relatively inexperienced Andrea Leadsom. Her subsequent withdrawal left Theresa May the last candidate standing, and she became prime minister without the Tory membership getting a say.

May sacked Gove as justice secretary, telling him pointedly: ‘You need to take a period on the back benches in order to demonstrate loyalty.’ He returned to journalism, earning £150,000 a year as a columnist for the Times for eight hours’ work a week. He took pains to demonstrate contrition for what the media depicted as his spectacular betrayal of Johnson, saying May had been right to dismiss him. His friendship with Cameron had been permanently damaged by what Cameron too saw as a betrayal over Brexit. After the election of 8 June 2017, which returned the Conservatives to power but now as a minority government, May evidently decided that Gove had had enough time to reflect on his bad behaviour, and appointed him secretary of state for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Here was another area to which he had devoted little thought, and, as he had done at the Ministry of Justice, he took a wide range of advice, including from organisations like Friends of the Earth, which Defra had previously cold-shouldered in favour of the farming lobby. Concerned, like other leading Conservatives, at the loss of support for the party among the younger generation, Gove pushed out a number of environment-friendly policies that had previously been under consideration but had failed to win formal approval. He insisted among other things that Brexit would not lead to a compromise on food hygiene and safety standards in the search for new trade deals.

Gove was widely regarded as a success in his new post, and remained loyal to May during a string of resignations from the cabinet, most notably of Johnson as foreign secretary. He brought the Tory benches, for a moment, behind her with a barnstorming attack on Jeremy Corbyn when a no confidence motion was brought before the House in May. With the Tory benches erupting in cheers, Gove, Bennett reports, ‘paced around the dispatch box in a style reminiscent of his days as president of the Oxford Union … His political rehabilitation was complete.’

When May eventually announced her resignation, Gove once more threw his hat in the ring, but his campaign lost momentum after he admitted that he had once taken cocaine, a confession that led to incessant questioning by interviewers over the following days. He came second in the penultimate ballot, but the number two spot in the final vote was taken by Jeremy Hunt, thanks, some suspected, to Johnson’s instructing some of his supporters to switch their votes to Hunt in order to prevent Gove from being included on the ballot for party members.

*

At this point Bennett’s book comes to an abrupt end. As he remarks in his discussion of Gove’s biography of Michael Portillo, published in 1995, when its subject was still regarded as a future Tory prime minister, ‘political biographers who choose to write about a figure not yet at the end of their career are taking a gamble.’ Who knows whether Bennett’s own gamble will come off? Since the book’s publication, Johnson has become prime minister and appointed Gove as minister for preparing for a no deal Brexit, a cause which, like many Brexiteers, he hadn’t even imagined in 2016.

Gove, like Johnson, has never worried about inconsistency. In March, for example, he declared firmly: ‘We didn’t vote to leave without a deal. That wasn’t the message of the campaign I helped lead.’ During the Brexit campaign he attracted a good deal of ridicule for telling a TV interviewer who cited the gloomy view taken by economists of Britain’s prospects outside the EU: ‘I think the people in this country have had enough of experts … from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.’ A decade earlier, in a Commons debate in May 2007, he had said: ‘Let us listen to the experts.’ He seems to approach every subject with the mentality of an Oxford Union debater: no matter what you’ve said before, the main thing is to trounce whoever happens to be in front of you at the time.

Much more seriously, his advocacy as education secretary of a centralised, prescriptive national curriculum was confounded by his simultaneous and equally strenuous push for the conversion of state schools into autonomous academies that were freed from any obligation to follow a national curriculum. What, then, was the point? In a sense, inconsistency didn’t matter: the point was to unsettle ‘the Blob’. Gove’s hyperactive promotion of constant reform, Bennett remarks, was more in keeping with Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution than with the middle of the road political position espoused by Gove’s one-time hero Blair. As one of Gove’s friends put it, he believes that ‘institutions have this incredibly strong drag effect and unless you are zealously fighting to push through your reforms they will die.’

Gove’s attitude is shared by Cummings, whom Johnson has now selected as his own special political adviser. Just as Gove brought Cummings into the Department for Education to shake things up and overcome, brutally if necessary, the resistance of the entrenched battalions of career civil servants (another part of ‘the Blob’), so Johnson has brought him in to do the same thing on a larger scale in order to force Brexit through whatever the cost. Cummings certainly hasn’t been reticent in offering his opinions. In 2017 he called the then Brexit secretary, David Davis, ‘thick as mince’, ‘lazy as a toad’ and ‘vain as Narcissus’. Cameron’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, was a ‘revolting character’. Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, was a ‘classic third-rate, suck-up-kick-down sycophant’. Cummings in his turn has been called ‘off the wall’, a ‘bit of a nutter’, a ‘bonkers, scruffy anarchist’ and (by Cameron himself, no less), a ‘career psychopath’.

These are the men in charge of taking Britain out of the EU. Johnson’s government, purged of any politician who has expressed the slightest doubt about the wisdom of leaving, with or without a deal, is focused single-mindedly on leaving by 31 October come what may. Only by doing so, the ruling triumvirate of Johnson, Gove and Cummings seem to believe, can the Conservatives win back the votes they have lost to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and triumph in a subsequent general election. Promises of new funding for the police, support for the NHS, a fresh crackdown on immigration, tougher discipline in schools, and departure from EU institutions before the projected leaving date, have all been made with the same purpose in mind. Johnson is making a show of negotiating a new deal with the EU, but it’s no more than a show; he must know he’s not going to get one. No deal is looking increasingly likely, and a divided opposition doesn’t seem capable of stopping it. Given the continuing stalemate on the issue in the House of Commons, the government is now trying to achieve a no deal Brexit without its approval, suspending Parliament for five weeks, a period unprecedented in length since 1945. For the ruling triumvirate, the consequences for the country don’t seem to matter, though they know they will be disastrous in the short term and probably in the medium to long term too.

It isn’t just that they don’t care. Gove and Cummings were from the very outset a disruptive force in government. During one major row with Clegg while Gove was education secretary, the deputy prime minister and his team showed they could give as good as they got: ‘The DfE advisors,’ they asserted, ‘are lying, going rogue, being hostile and talking bollocks.’ Attempting to smooth things over, Cameron told Clegg: ‘The thing that you’ve got to remember with Michael is that he’s basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction.’ But a lot of it wasn’t creative at all. When I asked Cummings what working for Gove was like, he told me that he had to spend most of his time firefighting, putting out the conflagrations his boss caused in one policy area after another. Who will have to do this job in the aftermath of a no deal Brexit is anybody’s guess but, whoever they are, they’ll be busy.