Michael Gove searches the heavens for more enemies of promise. Image: Getty.
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Michael Gove: my part in his downfall

Seven habits of highly unpopular people.

Michael Gove does not hate children. Michael Gove does not hate teachers. Michael Gove does not hate state schools. That these three statements should be in any way controversial is a mark of quite how badly the former education secretary failed in his four years in the job.

For most of those years, I was the editor of a monthly business magazine called EducationInvestor. Whatever my own views, it would have been, shall we say, commercially convenient if the education secretary had been plotting to sell state schools to the highest bidder.

But – he wasn't. Not even secretly; not even behind closed doors. And the way that I know this is that the more fundamentalist end of our readership, who believed that having any motivation other than profit was tantamount to radical socialism, would complain constantly about Gove's timidity and lack of ambition.

What Michael Gove truly wanted, in fact, was the opposite of privatisation. The real goal of all his reforms – free schools, academisation, endless changes to the curriculum – was a state school system so good that the private sector would just wither and die. (Private school head teachers spent four years whinging constantly about quite how unappreciated they were.)

The young staffers who surrounded him all had affluent backgrounds and Oxbridge degrees, yes. But they were also all quite ludicrously passionate about state education, and about spreading their good fortune and privilege as far as it would go. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of the most inspiring people I've ever met worked for Michael Gove. Just by being there, they made me feel terrible about my own self-serving life choices. In a world in which most ministers care less about their brief than they do about taking the next step on the ladder, Michael Gove really cared.

And yet there he is, the most hated man in Britain. Go figure.

As with everything else that ever happens in education policy, the left and the right have competing explanations for why this should be – or rather, they have competing interpretations of a single set of facts. To his enemies, Gove is the man who cut pay and conditions, cancelled school building schemes, added to teacher workloads, and snatched away local authority support. He’s made teachers’ daily lives worse: the profession hated Gove because, well, duh.

His supporters, however, give exactly the same reason for his unpopularity, with the vital difference that they think it's a good thing. Unpopularity is an inevitable side-effect of his crusade to take on the vested interests and enemies of promise that make up the education establishment. Unpopularity is a sign the medicine works.

And this, I think, is the real reason why nothing Gove touched ever quite seemed to go the plan: so ready was he for reform to become a fight to the death that he started to believe this nonsense himself. Angry teaching unions? Endless attacks in the papers? Being booed at conferences again? Got ‘em rattled. Carry on.

But there’s a downside to seeing unpopularity as a strength: you no longer have any mechanism to tell you when things are going wrong. Being hated for making hard choices looks exactly the same as being hated because you've screwed up. Gove and his acolytes long ago lost track of the ability to tell which is which. As a result, they were slow to notice their own mistakes, and deeply reluctant to change course. Wherever possible, they’d shoot the messenger before heeding the message, and Gove’s private office became a machine for turning critical friends into mortal enemies.

Despite the occasional narrowness of his ideas, Michael Gove was passionate about education. I’m sure he still is. But this passion, this determination to make things better whatever the cost, ended up blinding him to the possibility that, sometimes, he was making things worse.

The former education secretary has long been fond of referring to the education establishment (unions, bureaucrats, academics et al) as The Blob, after the 1958 film in which an alien amoeba crashes to earth and starts eating the townspeople. But perhaps a different B movie would be a more appropriate analogy for his career. By the end of The Thing, it's no longer possible to tell who is alien, and who is human. The longer you battle it, the harder it is to tell who your enemy really is – and the greater the chance that it's you.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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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