Soon after Michael Gove was given the shadow education portfolio in July 2007, he went to a Conservative think-tank meeting with the great and the good among academy sponsors. When questions from the floor were taken, I accused the biggest academy sponsor, the United Learning Trust, of running its schools in a "Stalinist way". The ULT's chief executive, Ewan Harper, huffed and puffed and then Gove said: "I should just point out that Francis Beckett wrote a fine book on British communism. So I think you can take it he meant Stalinist as a compliment."
I arrived ready to loathe the man, and left entranced by him, taking his mobile telephone number on the way out. A few weeks ago, I called him. He answered at once. Was I really writing about him for the New Statesman? How delightful! Why didn't I come in for a cup of tea? Would Tuesday week suit me? Tuesday week was 24 August, GCSE results day, but Gove had plenty of time to chat and pose for photographs. It was never this easy getting time with his Labour predecessors and the pressure of the next appointment always weighed heavy on the interview.
Gove, unusually for a politician, likes talking to people who disagree with him. In 1996, the editor of the Times, Peter Stothard (now editor of the Times Literary Supplement), appointed Gove as a leader writer. "What sets him apart," he says now, "is that he has the precious skill of making people who don't agree with him like him and respect him. He is persuasive in a personal sense. People who don't agree with him start agreeing with him a bit.
“It is surprising how few politicians can do that. At Times leader conferences we had people of widely differing opinions and it was surprising how much people would come towards Michael's position."
Richard Garner, education editor at the Independent and the elder statesman of the education correspondents, watched in admiration as Gove charmed the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference. "They got the idea of someone who might almost agree with them. He has a wonderful gift of talking up areas where there may be agreement."
Gove doesn't look or sound like a charmer: with his scrunched-up face, splayed feet and quick but oddly awkward movements, he bounces about and squeaks. He is rather like a highly intelligent hobbit. If Bilbo Baggins studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, he'd turn into Michael Gove.
He doesn't sound like a right-winger, either, but on some educational matters he's pretty hardline. He rushed through the Academies Act, which became law before July was out, too fast for the Liberal Democrats to marshal resistance. According to Ed Balls, his predecessor and now his shadow, Gove's academies are nothing like Labour's and will create permanent inequality: "He has removed local authorities entirely, removed the need for a sponsor, and offered academy status to the highest-performing schools. Academies worked because they could turn round underperforming schools. He has reshaped it as a rebirth of the grant-maintained schools of the 1990s. It will end in entrenching disadvantage."
Gospel according to Rita
The Academies Act invites heads and governors to consider how they "might wish to inform staff, pupils and parents of the intended conversion". The sponsor has an inbuilt majority on the governing body and parents do not have a right to more than one representative. Yet Gove claims to be on the side of parents. So, is there any chance of him allowing them any say? The short answer is no. Here is part of the long answer he gave me:
“If we think about the relationship that most of us have with the schools where our children are educated, theoretically, democratic accountability comes through the local authority. Very few of us, if pushed, could name the lead member of children's services in the authority where our children are educated. Most of us would be able to name the head teacher of the school our children go to. Very few of us would have a sense of the education policies of, let's say, Leicestershire versus Northamptonshire. All of us will have an acute judgement about whether St Jude's is better than St Hilda's. Parental influence on a child's education tends to come as much through the exertion of choice, or the expression of a repeated conversation with a head teacher, as it does through any formal government structure."
So, are we seeing parents as consumers rather than voters? Is choosing a school just like choosing to shop at Waitrose rather than Tesco? Gove isn't wholly pleased with the analogy, but doesn't contradict it. "You could put it that way, but that reduces education to a commodity. Are you a consumer, if you choose to do engineering at Manchester rather than Leeds, or are you exercising a choice, with the consequences in mind? In another respect, you're an adult whose wishes are being respected."
It turns out he thinks that denying parents a voice empowers them. "In [the film] Educating Rita, Rita says 'there has to be some other song to sing', and she goes to university to find that out - not to improve herself economically but to broaden herself. That is what education is about. In that sense, parents choosing a particular school is not a consumer choice - my child will be better equipped to be an economic cog in someone else's machine - it's 'I am an adult, I can be trusted to make these decisions, and I want my child to be able to make these decisions about their own life'."
He much admires Tony Blair - the most distressing thing I've heard him say is "Tony Blair really got it on education" - and like Blair, he is a religious man who thinks religion benefits schools. He is a member of the Church of Scotland, with an Anglican wife; they were married in an Anglican church, but attend Church of Scotland services when they are in Scotland. Yet his choice of secondary school for his own children, now aged seven and five, could well be Holland Park comprehensive, though he is slightly apprehensive about the identity of the last high-profile politician to send his children there - Tony Benn.
I wondered if he agreed with David Cameron that "we all know what a good school is", it's a school where, among other things, children all wear uniforms. In reply, he manages to avoid both disowning his leader and endorsing his leader's transparently silly statement. "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 was 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."
He thinks that "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.
“There are certain characteristics that mark out the best schools overall. Not all of them tick all the boxes. The idea that all of them should fit a cookie-cutter mould is indefensible."
What wealthy parents does he have in mind? Jade Goody from Big Brother, no less, whom he thinks was far from the airhead she was made out to be. She 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."
Meet the parents
Among the Cameroons, Gove is out of his class: by his own admission, he's a lot less posh than almost all the others in the Notting Hill set. His parents are middle-class folk from Aberdeen. His father had a small business processing the fish that the trawlers brought in, and he remembers him skinning and gutting them by hand.
Gove was adopted when he was four months old. His birth mother was a student when he was born in 1967, and she called him Graham. He could easily find out who she is but he chooses not to. It's not that he isn't curious, it's more that he is devoted to his adoptive parents.
“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.
“It's almost like saying to my wife that I needed to go out to dinner from time to time with another, single woman, just to be able to talk through my problems with her.
“I'm so grateful to my parents, that I find it difficult to contemplate doing something that I know would unsettle them. I feel that, in the scale of things, it's less important than letting my parents know that I think they did a wonderful thing in adopting me, giving me opportunities and making sacrifices for me.
“It's just my sense that it would be one kind of . . . It would be . . . It's not a precise or an effective analogy, but it's unrequited . . . it's . . ." Gove has the writer's habit of trying on words for size. I offer: "Betrayal?" "Yes. Almost. Mmm. Betrayal. Yes."
But he adds: "It's not that I've formed an unbreakable resolution." He is not going to take any steps to find his birth mother. But if she were to find him - as she could easily do now - he would be pleased. I think at some level he hopes she will. Peter Stothard told me that when Gove was on the Times, he wrote a feature that could have been read as an appeal to his birth mother to find him.
Gove went to state primary schools and then the fee-paying local school, Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen. It was fortunate that when he was due to enter the sixth form, he won a scholarship, because around the same time his father's business collapsed, so the fees would have been a serious issue.
After school there was Oxford, where, though he knew he was a Conservative, he was not sure whether he wanted to be a politician. "I told people I wanted to be a barrister. It was a way of avoiding the discussion." The Conservative Research Department turned him down - not political enough and not Conservative enough, they said - and he went to the Press and Journal in Aberdeen.
There he did something that I am sure no other leading Tory has done, and which helps explain his understanding and empathy with left-wing critics: he was on strike for as long as four months in the bitter confrontation between the National Union of Journalists and the Press and Journal, which derecognised the NUJ against the wishes of the journalists and then made scapegoats of the union leaders.
He was an active striker, willingly taking his turn on picket duty and going on a small delegation to Strasbourg to press the union's case, according to the Father of the Chapel (shop steward) at the time, Ian Campbell. "Most people liked him. He wasn't a typical journalist, and was thought of as being slightly eccentric," Campbell says.
“I didn't think the dispute was a good idea," Gove says in retrospect. "I was against going on strike, but I'd only just arrived. The majority of friends and colleagues felt very strongly about this. I was the new kid. There were people whom I liked and admired who felt they were being mistreated. I had joined the union. I felt that if you were in an organisation, you should generally respect the rules and the quirks of decision-making. I thought it was wrong to go on strike but I didn't feel that the principle was an ignoble one.
“We weren't striking because we were demanding a massive pay increase at an inappropriate time. There was an issue. The strike ringleaders were victimised. We can argue whether this was provocation on the management's part or the union's naivety. We were all dismissed and it became a very bitter dispute.
“And in the end most people never worked for Aberdeen Journals again. Some chose to cross the picket line, some were selectively re-employed.
“I don't think it was ignoble for the union to have argued that, when the majority believed that a house agreement was the right way forward, it should be maintained. People who had devoted their whole lives to Aberdeen Journals lost their jobs. For some of us, it was a minor hiccup. For other people it was devastating."
During the strike he was offered another job. "The message from the union leaders was that if you can find another job, don't regard it as
a betrayal. Don't feel that you have to weather the dispute." The job was at Scottish Television, where he worked for Gordon Brown's older brother, John, whom he likes very much (he rather likes Gordon, too). The BBC and the Times followed. The final decision to abandon journalism for politics, according to the David Cameron biography by Francis Elliott and James Hanning, was taken over lunch with Cameron. He became the MP for Surrey Heath at the 2005 general election. In August, Gove celebrated his 43rd birthday.
Eighteen years after the Press and Journal strike, the NUJ's 2007 annual delegate meeting called for a boycott of Israeli goods. Within two months the executive, faced with protests from many NUJ members, decided to take no action on it, and nothing has been heard of it since. But the previous year Gove had nailed his Middle East colours to the mast with a book entitled Celsius 7/7. The Iraq war is something else for which he admires Tony Blair. He stormed out of the NUJ in protest.
“Considering some of the other stupid things the NUJ has done, it isn't really the stupidest," he says now. "Considering all the noble things that it has stood up for over time, such as freedom of speech, I might have turned a blind eye to it. There are certain occasions where I've been drawn to taking particular stands because not enough people have been.
“You can argue that this may not have been the moment, or the ground to choose, but it was something that was important to me. It was one way I could signal what I believed in, in a marginally influential way. My views on the Middle East are in a minority among journalists - if not the majority of the British public. I have taken the opportunity to march towards the sound of gunfire on this subject, on repeated occasions."
Well, maybe. But for a rising Conservative MP in 2007, publicly storming out of his trade union wasn't exactly going out on a limb. Going on strike for union recognition as a trainee journalist in 1989 required a lot more courage.
He has not found the transition to government easy. Journalists often don't, and his are the sorts of scrapes a journalist might get into. Gove was caught absurdly overstating the numbers of schools that wanted to become academies. The figure he gave was of schools that had looked at the website. His announcement of the end of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was full of errors about which schools would have their projects cancelled. Ed Balls, another former journalist, whose reputation in the Labour Party has done well out of effective parliamentary performances against Gove, is scathing.
“He uses flamboyant language to try to draw attention away," Balls told me. "He was fatally not on top of his brief over BSF. Journalism gives you some good skills for politics, but you need to develop others. When I became secretary of state I had been out of journalism for more than ten years. In government, you can't change your mind as you can in journalism."
What strikes you first about Gove is that he listens seriously and courteously to other views; what strikes you next is that they make no lasting impression on him. He arrived years ago at a series of settled convictions. He will smile and flatter and bounce about and squeak - he's a bit Tiggerish - but he won't budge. Which is a shame, because his ideas are not going to be half as good at the chalkface as they looked on the drawing board in Conservative Campaign Headquarters.
“He can charm people and he does listen to people," says Richard Garner. "He has a very good memory for who has put forward what argument." Before the election, I asked him to contribute to a book I'm editing on prime ministers we never had. He declined because he was short of time, but said he would have liked to have done John Reid. I emailed back with something unkind about Reid and he shot back at once: "How can you say that of a great alumnus of the CPGB [Communist Party of Great Britain]?" I sent him an email quoting from the Spanish version of "The Red Flag" and he replied: "La lucha continúa" (the struggle goes on). Another reply to one of my emails read: "Dear Comrade Beckett, Thank you for your message - I enclose below our new campaign song. Fraternal greetings." Underneath was a song I was surprised he knew:
Flying higher, higher and higher,
Our emblem the Soviet Star,
And every propeller is roaring,
Defending the USSR!
When he was able to name, at that academies meeting, a book of mine of which most people have never heard, Peter Stothard suggested that Gove might actually have read it. I assumed it was just intelligent use of Google. "No, no," Gove said when we met, bounding over to his bookshelf. "No - I think I can - I'm sure I can - mmm." He produced not that book, but another one of mine, and held it up in front of him with a happy grin all over his round, almost childlike face, and I felt sure that he was about to put a ring on his finger and vanish.
Francis Beckett's most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?" (Biteback, £12.99)