Michael Gove, the “Jade Goody Test” and Clause Four Comp

“When Goody had money she chose to invest in her children.”

In this week's New Statesman, out tomorrow, we have a fascinating interview-profile of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, one of the best I have read of him. It's by Francis Beckett, an expert on education issues, whose latest book is What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? (Biteback).

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Gove and I were colleagues on the Times. Our offices were an old windowless rum warehouse located deep within the interior of Rupert Murdoch's Wapping complex, shut away behind high security fences. The whole oppressive set-up was like something out of a J G Ballard novel -- or, in retrospect, an early experiment in what would become Gordon Brown's surveillance state.

The building had two levels; Gove sat on the upper level, close to the editor Peter Stothard and his fellow leader-writers. I wrote essays and features and was on the ground floor, seated next to Giles Coren, an engaging and tyrannical monologist even then. It was obvious to me that Gove would ultimately pursue a career in Conservative politics and that Coren would end up presenting a television game show, or something like that.

There is a nice moment in the interview, during a discussion on policy, when Gove offers a novel way of measuring educational aspiration. Let's call it the Jade Goody Test.

Everyone remembers Norman Tebbit's "cricket test", which he used as a measure of a second- or third-generation immigrant's allegiance to the British state. "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test," Tebbitt said in 1990. "Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?"

Now, Gove has come up with his own test -- this time to determine where, given the opportunity, parents would choose to send their children to school. "Jade Goody," he says, "became an icon of educational underachievement, but when she had money she chose to invest it in her children by giving them the most traditional Essex prep-school schooling possible, and creating an endowment trust fund before she died so they could continue to attend fee-paying schools with all the criteria that David Cameron listed."

David Cameron, lest we forget, said: "We all know what a good school is, it's a school where, among other things, children all wear uniforms."

Gove continues:

If you said to people there's a Labour school and a Conservative school -- there's the Gordon Brown Comprehensive and David Cameron Academy -- people would imagine that the Conservative school had all of these things [the things Cameron has been talking about, such as uniforms]. People would imagine that the Labour school had teachers in jeans, a rather more free-form approach towards discipline. Funnily enough, I believe the majority of parents would, given the choice, send their child to St Tory's, rather than to the Clause Four comp.

Wealthier parents, when they have the opportunity, overwhelmingly choose traditional schools. It's still the case that the majority of people who can't or wouldn't contemplate educating their children privately -- either due to lack of resources or principled aversion to the idea -- prefer a small-c conservative approach to the operation of their school, a disciplined and ordered environment. And a uniform is a symbol of that.

In addition, Gove speaks candidly and affectingly about his adoption and whether he would one day attempt to find his birth mother.

I am more than just grateful. I had a fantastic upbringing. My parents were wonderful and I know, in the way that you can't always put into words, that to seek to find out who my birth mother is would upset my parents. They wouldn't ever stand in my way; they've always encouraged me to find out. They've never even given me a hint. But I just sort of know that to do something would be to imply that the role they played in my life was somehow not perfect or complete. It would be like saying to your mother that everything she provided for you wasn't enough -- that I needed an additional Gove for maternal love or validation.

Anyway, as I said, you can read the profile in this week's magazine. A longer version will be published online next week.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder