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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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