The real reason Gove attacked Lord Ashcroft

Former Times columnist launched attack after Ashcroft sued the paper over drugs allegations.

Have a look at these sharp (and very funny) quotes about Lord Ashcroft:

"[T]he Tories, fatally, foolishly, put all their eggs in the Belize basket. They secured the short-term comfort of Mr Ashcroft's tax-sheltered millions, but have paid the price in credibility forgone."

"Mr Hague certainly has a well-developed sense of humour . . . You certainly do not emerge strengthened as an opponent of cronyism by expending what credibility you have acting as the paid lobbyist for your own title-hungry treasurer."

"He [William Hague] must be able to see that Mr Ashcroft's comments are not the stuff of good-natured self-deprecation. They convey the authentic whiff of a man who brooks no opposition to his will, and enjoys no check on his arrogance, and they serve to make an already tawdry episode quite ridiculous."

Now take a guess at their author. Silver-tongued Peter Mandelson, perhaps? Jack Straw at his most indignant? The increasingly assertive David Miliband?

In fact, the person responsible is the very man the Tories put up on Newsnight last night to apologise for Ashcroft's misdemeanours, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove.

Back in 2000, while a columnist for the Times, Gove penned this furious polemic against Ashcroft shortly after the non-dom's elevation to the House of Lords. Confronted with his words today, he waves his hand and explains that, as a columnist, he was "paid to entertain". Gove is too modest. His piece is no mere flight of fancy; it is a howl of moral outrage.

He is also not telling the full story. I do not make too great a presumption when I assume that Gove's Times column was related to Ashcroft's decision to sue the newspaper in question less than a year earlier.

Ashcroft sued for libel after the Times published a story in July 1999 suggesting that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had the Tory donor in its sights as a narcotics smuggler and money-launderer. What the paper did not explain was that Ashcroft was just one of five million people on whom the DEA routinely kept files.

The two parties eventually reached an out-of-court agreement and Rupert Murdoch agreed to print a front-page statement withdrawing the allegations. Ashcroft has since told his side of the story in the savage Dirty Politics, Dirty Times: My Fight With Wapping and New Labour.

I dare say that Ashcroft and Gove now take a rather more favourable view of each other, but it is in this context that Gove's earlier attack must be placed.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia