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How Iran went nuclear

David Patrikarakos tells the remarkable story of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, which beg

In the beginning there was the atom bomb and the world-changing destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the atom was also a renewable energy source that could lift countries into modernity. It had to be harnessed, not simply abandoned. In the gloom of the postwar period, the world looked to Washington for guidance on how to recalibrate the global order. This duly came with President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace programme – the first non-proliferation initiative. Atoms for Peace gave countries the equipment to start their own peaceful programmes regulated by an international agency devoted to the job (it became the IAEA). Washington became the source of all nuclear materials, and it found a willing recipient in Iran.

Akbar Etemad is a nuclear physicist in his seventies, long-faced, short-tempered, and of immeasurable importance to Iran’s nuclear history. In 1965 he returned home from studying in Paris with many qualifications but no job. According to the press, a five-megawatt research reactor – a gift from Atoms for Peace – sat in Tehran University,and sat. A lack of expertise had forced work to stop and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was angry. Etemad came to the shah’s attention and completed the reactor in 1967. “It was no big deal,” he told me one morning over coffee in London. “The nuclear programme at this stage was almost non-existent.”

After Etemad completed the reactor, he left to work in higher education for a few years. But it was not his last contact with nuclear power. Following the 1973 oil boom the shah called him back: full steam ahead was the order. Etemad told him that the programme needed something hitherto missing: a plan. With a limitless budget and the royal blessing, he created the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) in 1974. He was also made deputy prime minister. From that point until the revolution of 1979 the two met at least once a week. “No matter what he was doing, he still found time to discuss the programme,” Ete­mad says. “It was so close to his heart.”

Why? Officially, oil. During the 1970s Iran was the third-largest oil producer in the world. It was a valued but finite commodity on which to base a nation’s wealth. The shah was clear on this dilemma: petroleum and gas were simply too valuable to burn for fuel. This is important. First articulated more than 40 years ago, it remains the official line on atomic power under the Islamic Republic today. It has economic cogency – domestic use of fossil fuels drastically affects foreign exchange earnings, as every barrel burned is a barrel not sold. From the beginning, nuclear energy was seen as the replacement. “It is a shame to burn the noble product [oil] to run factories and light houses,” wrote the shah in 1961. “We plan to get, as soon as possible, 23,000MW [megawatts] from nuclear power stations.”

There was also an unspoken reason. Glory. Like all dead kings, even successful ones, the shah is condemned to dramatic irony. Ever since Nader Shah returned to Tehran with a stolen Mughal throne in 1739, the Peacock Throne has symbolised the royal house of Persia. For Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, royal glory was foreign policy, and he was determined to make the metaphor a reality: the great tail feathers would unfurl in all their Pahlavi splendour and the world, or, at any rate, the region, would marvel at the display.

The shah had named his country “the Empire of Iran” and “modernisation” was the path to its imperial reinvigoration. To Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, modernisation signified westernisation – and the two were insuperable, as well as inseparable. The means was technology, and especially nuclear technology, the vanguard of modernity. He saw a world where Britain and the US had assumed leadership in nuclear power. Technology brought prestige; it was a laurel for the royal breast, but one that could only be pinned there by a western hand.

Etemad remembers all this. At a general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the late 1970s he was called on to vote and called his king for instructions: “His Majesty said, ‘You should vote as the developed countries do,’” Etemad says. “We had to act like a western country. This was the point of the programme – to bolster us rapidly into a developed country, to get into the western world.”

And he wanted to do it fast. Despite Etemad’s best efforts to build up an Iranian scientific base, the shah wanted to increase western links. In March 1974 France ratified an agreement for five reactors, with a further two to be built under licence from the US firm Westinghouse. That year Etemad also signed a contract for two water reactors from the West German firm KWU for a proposed plant at Bushehr, to supply electricity to the south-western city of Shiraz. In 1975, Iran also acquired a 10 per cent stake in Eurodif, a uranium-enrichment venture involving France, Belgium and Spain. As his father, Reza Pahlavi, had done with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the shah bound Iran to the west with commercial ties. This time the prize was not oil, but nuclear energy. Such is the nature of progress.

Ardeshir Zahedi, holding a pen in one hand and a tightly bound five-page document in the other, sat behind a desk at the Foreign Office in London between three civil servants who stood looking at him expectantly. It was 1 July 1968, Zahedi was foreign minister of Iran, and he had just signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). “It was a historic moment,” he says from his home in Montreux. “I telephoned His Majesty in Tehran and told him it was done. He was very pleased. We had signed it the day it opened for signature. He was determined to show that we were an honourable country.” As far back as 1968, the seeds of today’s impasse between Iran and the US and other western nations were sown. It’s there in all the details.

“We should never have signed it,” complains Etemad. “It was not a fair treaty. I never would have allowed it. Only small countries joined – Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, the Fiji Islands. The countries that actually had a chance of getting nuclear power – India, Pakistan, Israel – they stayed out. Only we signed.”

One evening in late 1976, Akbar Etemad was having an argument with the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had come to Tehran to promote a plan for US regional nuclear fuel centres in the Middle East, intended to reduce the need for other nations to develop their own sources. Etemad repeated the reasons for his refusal: national sovereignty, the right to pursue indigenous enrichment under the NPT, arguments that would reappear 30 years later. It didn’t seem to be working.

He tried a different tack. “I said, ‘Mr Kissinger, I’m going to talk to you now as a Harvard professor. Regardless of anything else, can you imagine Iran sitting around a table with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and agreeing on anything – let alone nuclear fuel?’ Kissinger leaned back in his chair; he thought, and he said: ‘You’re quite right, it is impossible.’”

Matters only got worse with the arrival of Jimmy Carter and the tightening of US exports of nuclear materials. “This man, Carter!” became shorthand for the new president. “The shah never really liked Democrats,” says Etemad. “He much preferred Nixon.”

And nuclear weapons? In public, the shah rejected them. “The idea that I want nuclear weapons is ridiculous; only a few silly fools believe it,” he said in 1976. As an NPT signatory, he could not say anything else. More pertinently, infrastructure was so basic that any bomb would have taken years. Until then, why rock the boat?

But self-interest played a part, too. In the years after 1973, as money, hubris and repression increased in equal measure, so did the shah’s need for a powerful military. By the end of the 1970s, Iran was what he wanted it to be: a Gulf superpower. “He always said we didn’t need nuclear weapons because of our military strength. Nuclear weapons might actually force others to go nuclear and wipe out our conventional arms advantage,” says Etemad. “But he also said if things ever changed – if our security was threatened – he would give the order. I’ve no doubt that were he here today he would say, ‘Go’; and I would.”

The Iranian psyche is cleaved, bloated with a sense of the country’s historical importance but scarred by the humiliations of the not-so-distant past. The division of Iran into spheres of influence by the British and the Russians during the Great Game, the overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq in a British and American coup in 1953, the constant meddling of foreign powers – all burned into the popular imagination. The shah believed he was a “western” ruler, but his story is that of modern Iran itself: the desire to escape from the “colonial” father and strike out in the world. His means was to imitate his western role models. The nuclear programme rested on this vision, an empyrean charge into modernity.

But a vision is just that. It will always contract in the face of reality. In the end, royal profligacy and repression – reality – were too much; and the people, radicalised by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, revolted. In the end, as the regime crumbled, it retreated on many of its policies, including the nuclear programme – now nothing more than the vulgar toy of a hated ruler.

In 1979 the revolution changed everything. Iran was tranformed from an autocratic and pro-western monarchy into an isolationist and populist Islamic republic under the clerical rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini brought a new day with a new system of government, and a deep mistrust of the international community. The new path lay not just in 7th-century Islamic history, but 19th- and 20th-century Iranian history. During the revolution crowds marched through the streets holding banners adorned with pictures of Mossadeq and denounced the shah as Washington’s puppet. Iran would no longer be “enslaved” by “imperial” powers, dependent neither on “the godless east nor the tyrannic [sic] blasphemous west”. And it would be self-sufficient.

With the nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic had inherited a symptom of Pahlavi excess. The new government, led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and desperate to distance itself from the shah’s unpopular measures, installed the excitable Fereydun Sahabi as head of the AEOI in April 1979. He immediately announced that the programme was seriously over budget. The Bushehr reactors in particular had almost doubled in cost to $7bn. They had also created “a consumer market for the industrial products of other countries”. Sahabi declared that a “vicious” reliance on foreign manpower would end.

In future, the programme would “enhance the country’s knowledge of nuclear energy with a view to achieving self-sufficiency”. But this was not enough. On 17 June 1980, officials confirmed the suspension of Bushehr, announcing on Iranian radio that “the construction of these reactors, started by the former regime on the basis of colonialist and imposed treaties . . . was a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries”.

No longer a banner of Iranian internationalism, the nuclear programme was now viewed as the continuation of colonialism by other means. The atom was not merely too expensive, it was ideologically unclean. In late 1979 the government announced the unilateral abrogation of contracts with KWU and the French company Framatome. Naturally, this did little to improve the country’s foreign relations. Both sued.

Nuclear power is always a statement of identity. In rejecting the programme, the revolutionary government rejected what it symbolised politically: Pahlavi ambition. It rejected a particular form of statehood. The shah had been a western poodle. Now defiant and self-sufficient, the Islamic Republic had found a new means by which to make its way in the world.

But God, alas, does not supply electricity or pay wages, at least not directly. Power shortages and an idling AEOI made energy once again a high priority for the government. In early 1980 Sahabi was dismissed and Reza Amrollahi – a somewhat more reasonable man – replaced him. The decision was taken to start the programme again and, in early 1982, legal disputes with KWU reached a preliminary agreement at arbitration. Agreement with Framatome followed. Tehran was willing to reconcile and beginning to understand that theology wasn’t enough.

In June 1982, KWU agreed to complete at least one of the two reactors at Bushehr and the engineers returned to the site that year. Officially ideology still ruled, however, and the government justified this U-turn with the need for “native expertise”. Through rhetorical sleight, indigenous capability and self-reliance now justified not the abandonment of the programme, but its restart.

The moves came to nothing. KWU was reluctant to work on Bushehr while the Iran-Iraq War – which had begun in September 1980 – was still raging. In May 1984 it said that it would complete the project only when the war ended. The Iraqis had struck the Bushehr reactor, and were to do so a further seven times before the 1988 ceasefire. KWU declined repeated requests to resume construction of the plant, which lay dormant until the Russians signed an agreement in 1995 for its completion. Western co-operation had ended.

The Islamic Republic, however, had bigger problems. It had raised its flag with the disgraceful kidnapping of diplomats at the US embassy in Tehran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis – an act that alienated the onlooking world, including a United States desperate to keep the friendship of its Persian ally. Outraged, President Carter had imposed an array of economic and military sanctions on Iran as well as tacitly supporting Iraq in the war. After the decision to restart the nuclear programme, agreement had been sought not only with contractors but also the IAEA, which agreed to help with a proposed reactor at Isfahan’s nuclear technology centre. But US pressure forced it to back out. In response, Iran turned to the developing world for assistance – Pakistan, China and South America were the destinations. Iran was now doubly damned, first by its own revolutionary self and then by association.

The Islamic Republic was now poorer and weaker and, crucially, alone; it had more humiliation, more rage, and more God. Both the invasion by Iraq and the Iraqis’ subsequent use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers had been met with exuberant inactivity by the UN and the international community in general. In turn, all institutions were now seen as tools of the west. Khomeini had been right.

Cherchez l’Amérique – if there is one lesson from postwar international politics, it is this. Washington had been of central importance to the shah’s programme. It was to be so again, but for different reasons. Necessity had restarted nuclear power under the Islamic Republic. Pride was now to resurface. But it was an altered pride. However much the world “persecuted” Iran, it would not win. “Despite the problems resulting from America’s unfair victimisation of the Islamic Republic and the world’s blindness in the face of repeated violations by the Ba’athist regime,” said a sombre Amrollahi in 1987, “there have been remarkable improvements in the scientific and industrial fields in our country.”

The nuclear programme had become symbolic once more – this time not because it was something a developed, western country had because it was developed and western, but something a developing country had because it was palpably non-western and defiant. Like the soldiers on the Iraqi battlefields, the Iranian nuclear programme embodied a nation’s refusal to be cowed.

Officially, the Islamic Republic rejected nuclear weapons. It went further – it urged disarmament. For Iran’s representative to the UN in October 1986, nuclear weapons created a world where “each day the big powers become increasingly dominant at the expense of the oppressed nations”. They were synonymous with colonisation, the pri­meval impulse of strong against weak.

Iran, however, was also at odds with the world’s superpower and at war with Iraq, which, under Saddam Hussein, had been building its own nuclear capability until the 1981 Israeli attack on its nuclear reactor at Osirak. It had good reason to develop weapons and it is inconceivable that the mullahs did not consider the option.

But the programme was a shambles, the Bushehr reactors stood uncompleted, and the war was draining the country’s resources. There was simply no chance of getting them.

The truth was, as far as the world was concerned, it didn’t matter. In the mid-1980s the US urged a worldwide ban on the sale of nuclear materials to the Islamic Republic. In a declassified report of April 1984, the state department outlined its refusal to “consent to the transfer of US-origin nuclear equipment, material or technology to Iran”. But, in the very same document, it conceded that “the reactors at Bushehr . . . are not particularly well-suited for a weapons programme . . . we [also] have no evidence of Iranian construction of other facilities that would be necessary to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel”. The state department admitted that it was denying technology to a state that could not pose a genuine threat.

The US, scarred by the hostage crisis and later the Iran-Contra affair, now could not view Iran rationally. In 1984, a US senator from Ohio, John Glenn, called for a ban on the export of all nuclear materials to certain countries. With no evidence of wrongdoing, he merely invited all to “imagine a world in which the Ayatollah Khomeini can have nuclear weapons and we face . . . state-supported nuclear terrorism”.

To the Iranian people, fed by government propaganda, the US is denying them their “rights” in the best tradition of imperialism. They have come to see their programme as a totem of their country’s independence. In the words of the former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, the people are united in “wanting nuclear technology because the US says we can’t have it”. The Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric, by stirring the nationalist impulse, served only to push a young and vibrant population yearning for social freedom into the arms of a moribund regime fearful of its own country’s demographics. The Iranian people have become reluctant spear-carriers for a regime they dislike, based on theological ideals they distrust, herding them into a future they dread.

The Islamic Republic is a dismal and brutal regime, but it is not stupid. That much is clear from the past seven years. Compared to the meanderings of the western coalition, its diplomacy has been balletic. It has exploited differences between a hawkish Washington and a more conciliatory EU, played on its relationship with the Chinese and the Russians, and always expressed a willingness to negotiate – even if only as a stalling tactic. And all the while it has continued enriching. On 11 April 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced completion of the nuclear fuel cycle on a laboratory scale by successfully enriching uranium to a level suitable for civilian purposes (3.5 per cent). A year later Iran had enriched uranium on an industrial scale. It has mastered the fuel cycle.

As Iran continues onwards, tensions have increased, seemingly in line with Ahmadinejad’s unpredictability. The president has been a gift to those in Washington who urge military strikes. From the mercantile pragmatism of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the eloquence of Mohammad Khatami, the variegated friezes of Iranian diplomacy have taken firm shape in the blacksmith’s son from Aradan. He is the hawk’s dream, with his lick of black hair, his beard and bewildering rhetoric.

Tehran has been dishonest about its programme. It has repeatedly hidden the scope and nature of its activities, and although it has not violated the NPT according to the letter of the law, its co-operation has been reactive not proactive, and consistently in bad faith. Yet it is its rhetoric more than anything else that has been used to support the notion that the Islamic Republic is a “rogue” nation. It continues to be seen as merely the sum of its words – and no state is more open to damaging quotation.

The north Tehran skyline is jagged with the steel cages of half-finished buildings. Frozen cranes dot the horizon, a dumbshow of overreaching. As with everything in modern Iran there are huge anomalies with the nuclear programme – the Bushehr reactor, when it comes online, after 30 years and billions of dollars, will supply only about 10 per cent of Iran’s electricity needs. In many ways, it is almost a parody of an efficient, financially viable programme. This strengthens the belief among many that it is a cover for weapons, but the truth is more complex – and more prosaic.

In 1989, reflecting on the Iran-Iraq War, Rafsanjani declared that “the world does not respect its own resolutions and closes its eyes to the violations and all the aggressions committed in the battlefield”. The lesson was stark: Iran could trust only Iran. “We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons,” he continued. The war is over. But as with Mossadeq, as with the Great Game, it is clear that Iran has internalised these feelings of abandonment and mistrust. Never again will foreigners dictate to Iran; never again will it accept restrictions on its behaviour – certainly not on its “legitimate right” to enrich uranium; never again will it be weak.

Iran faces practical dangers, too. The US has maintained a large military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991. Saudi Arabia and the UAE house numerous US bases, all within easy striking distance of Tehran. In 2001, for Operation Enduring Freedom, thousands of US troops gathered in Afghanistan on the country’s eastern border. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 removed a danger but led to yet more US troops massing, this time to the west. Now add the presence of US soldiers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: encirclement. There is a joke that has done the rounds in Tehran for some time. It goes like this: “There are just two countries in the world that have only the US as their neighbour: the other one is Canada.”

Surrounded by a self-declared enemy that has labelled it “evil” and supports “regime change”, what is Iran to do? It can never hope to compete with the US in conventional warfare – nuclear weapons might be the only credible alternative. In 2001, Iran, through back channels, helped the US in its war in Afghanistan, providing intelligence and offering to search for US pilots shot down over its airspace. The reward was a place in the “Axis of Evil”. Meanwhile, Pakistan harboured the Taliban for years only to be saluted by Colin Powell as an ally in the global War on Terror. Many in Tehran have concluded that the White House treats nuclear states differently.

But whether this will translate into a bomb is still uncertain. In December 2007, the US National Security Council produced its annual intelligence estimate, in which it judged with “high confidence” that Iran had halted any possible weapons programme in 2003. Even the paranoid US security Establishment believed that the nuclear programme was a puny target for the US. This dampened Washington’s appetite for military strikes, but not Tel Aviv’s. “Israel views Iran as an existential threat,” a senior Israeli diplomat told me recently. “We are certain Tehran wants the bomb – this cannot happen.”

But might any military action not be a cause for war? “Israel is already fighting a war with Iran through Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. We seek a diplomatic solution; we are not trigger-happy. But, I repeat, Iran cannot get the bomb.”

Iran now has a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. To enrich this to weapons-grade capability it has to run it through its existing centrifuges until the appropriate levels (about 93 per cent) are reached, though this is not easy. In 1989, Rafsanjani might have wished for a nuclear deterrent, but it was impossible. Iran does not yet have the bomb. The country does not want the international isolation that would follow its attainment, but it could be pushed: military attack would accelerate a weapons drive from Tehran.

The Bush administration believed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions were a barrier to dialogue. They shouldn’t have been. The nuclear stand-0ff is not the cause, but the effect of a wider problem, and it is a political one. Barack Obama has made détente with the Islamic Republic his most audacious hope yet. However, to deal with Iran, we must first understand it. The nuclear programme offers us this chance.

The nuclear programme is many things to Iran but most of all it is the expression of a nation seeking a place in the modern world. It is an irony, and a peculiarly Iranian one, that it pursues the one thing that may bring its total isolation from what it wants above all else: acceptance – but on its own terms.

For 30 years Iran and the US have danced together out of step, always joined, never in time. America’s hand was rebuffed by Iran in 1979. In turn, America rejected Iran’s overtures in the 1980s and 1990s. The disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad has disappointed the hopes of many for change, yet things may not be so clear-cut. Earlier in the year Ahmadinejad appeared eager to take credit for the diplomatic opening with Washington, to appear more flexible. The IAEA’s February report judged that Iran’s rate of uranium enrichment had slowed, a possible sign that Tehran was open to negotiation. And there is the chance, however remote, that a second-term president might have learned something from the mistakes of his first.

So far, Washington, in the aftermath of the election, has expressed only tentative unease about the events unfolding in Iran. What is clear is that the White House has abandoned the aggressive rhetoric of the recent past. It is waiting to see what happens in that most unreliable of arenas: Tehran’s streets. Only the US can solve the Iran problem; it alone has the requisite economic and political capital. The next move from either side will be critical.

The wit and wisdom of President Ahmadinejad

On economic policy
There is an honourable butcher in our neighbourhood who knows all the economic problems of the people. I get my economic information from him.

On the Holocaust
They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets.

On the 9/11 attacks
Could it be planned and executed without co-ordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course, this is just an educated guess.

On nuclear negotiations
Do you think you are dealing with a four-year-old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?

On homosexuality
In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you we have it.

On Israel and Zionism
The Imam [Khomeini] said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.

On the Hollywood blockbuster 300
Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran’s image look savage.

On his rivals’ campaign tactics
Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler’s methods.

On humour
Let me tell a joke here. I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, or testing them, making them, politically they are backward, retarded.

On Barack Obama’s election victory
I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove, the polite assassin

The Messianic restlessness of the justice secretary.

Michael Gove is the politest man in politics and one of the most abrasive, a charmer who cultivates enemies. He is pious, loyal and incurably irreverent. He is a gifted communicator who is widely misunderstood, an accomplished operator who repeatedly makes basic errors, and a right-wing ideologue with a fierce aversion to unearned privilege. He is a Conservative. He is a radical.

His party isn’t sure if he is an asset or a ­liability. One day in November 2013, when Gove was in the fourth year of his tenure as secretary of state for education, he received a visitor from Downing Street. Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister’s chief political strategist, took Gove through a PowerPoint presentation, outlining his strategy for a Conservative victory in the upcoming general election, then 18 months away.

Crosby brought gratifying news. In most countries, he said, education was the preserve of parties of the left. But Crosby’s polling data indicated that in the UK, Gove had succeeded in putting this territory up for grabs. Crosby was inclined to seize it. It fitted the larger story that the Tories wanted to tell: opportunities for all, rewards for hard work, success in the global economic race. Gove and his advisers were delighted.

Eight months later, the Prime Minister met with Gove to tell him that he was relieving him of his duties at Education. It came as a painful shock. Gove wasn’t ready to leave, and his demotion to the post of chief whip – a job for which he had little appetite – involved the loss of a full cabinet seat. As if that weren’t enough, he was being sacked by one of his oldest and closest friends in politics, a man to whom he had given much, and of whom he had asked little. He did not, however, as Iain Duncan Smith had done more than once, threaten to resign. He was too loyal for that, as Cameron must have calculated.

The next day, Gove’s injury was spiked with insult. The Sunday papers, briefed by Cameron’s office on the reshuffle, led with Gove’s dismissal. All of them used the same word. It was said that the Prime Minister had concluded, on Crosby’s advice, that his education secretary was “toxic”, hated by teachers, who talk to parents, who vote in large numbers. Gove stayed loyal in public, even as his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, tweeted rather ominously about “a shabby day’s work which Cameron will live to regret”.

After the election was won, Gove’s status and pride were at least partly restored when he was awarded a new job: Secretary of State for Justice (and Lord Chancellor). One of the most intriguing questions of the new government is what he will decide to do with it. That is not a question you ask of every minister – you can’t imagine asking it of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, in any job, ever. But Gove is an inveterate reformer, driven by a desire to change the world, rather than simply manage it: as a friend and former colleague at the Department for Education told me, with feeling, “The thing about Michael is that he wants to do things – to change things because he believes in them.” As a personality, he stands out in the rather bland world of Westminster, a parakeet among pigeons. Someone who has worked closely with all the key players in this government calls him “the most interesting man in politics”.

Gove has kept a low profile, for him, since his appointment to Justice (he declined to be interviewed for this article). But the early signs are that he wants to do things again. He has been tasked with the government’s law reforms, and with extracting Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Both moves will be resisted by lawyers. If he takes on the legal establishment as he took on the education establishment, he may have the biggest fight of his political career. Lawyers are closer than teachers to the levers of political power, and advocates are usually pretty good at advocating. The Gove brand might become retoxified by combat. But if he doesn’t take that risk, will he still be able to do big things?

This leads us to a fundamental question about reform. In April, three weeks before the general election, I attended a lunch organised by the New Statesman at which the principal guest was Tristram Hunt, then the shadow education secretary. In those days, believe it or not, it seemed likely that we were meeting the next education secretary. Hunt spoke to the assembled guests and then took questions.

When he had finished, I turned to the guest next to me, a former civil servant at the DfE who now worked for an exam board. I wondered aloud how Hunt would get on in government. “Oh, he’ll be utterly useless,” my neighbour replied. He explained that the world of education consists of a series of staunchly opposed and deeply entrenched interests. Hunt, he said, seemed to assume that everyone would be eager to work with him to improve schools. But it wasn’t like that.

If you are a politician who wants to make big changes to the way a public service runs, do you need to pick sides, and choose enemies, or can you do it through consensus and conciliation? Perhaps the answer depends on character as much as political ­philosophy. Radicalism in government isn’t so much a creed, as a temperament, one that thrills in putting principle over compromise, and is drawn irresistibly to the theatre of battle.

Another of Gove’s friends told me, “Michael is an idealist – a dangerous character.”


Among those on the left, at least, Michael Gove was the coalition government’s chief hate figure, beating David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, or George Osborne. This is, when you think about it, a little odd. For one thing, Gove wasn’t the one shrinking the state or cutting benefits; indeed, he successfully defended Education from the worst of the cuts. For another, his Toryism comes with a vivid streak of red (though perhaps that explains it). Among those who have known or engaged with Gove, it is said, even by adversaries, that he is animated by concern for the poor. Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the teachers’ union, who is an otherwise unsparing critic, told me: “He wants a more equal society. He truly believes in education as a vehicle for social justice.”

Gove’s background is not that of a typical Tory, and is certainly different from that of his friends Osborne and Cameron. He was born in Edinburgh in 1967, and his biological mother gave him away when he was still an infant. He was adopted at four months by a couple from Aberdeen who proved to be loving parents. (His mother used to tell him, “You didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it.”) His father, Ernest, ran a small business, inherited from his own father, processing the cod and whiting that came in from the trawlers every morning. Some of Gove’s earliest memories are of watching his father skin, gut and smoke fish (he hated the smell). Gove’s mother, Christine, was a lab assistant at Aberdeen University. Together with his younger sister, Angela, also
adopted, he was raised in a three-bedroom semi. The family attended Church of Scotland services and he remains an avid believer: his moral world-view, and his rhetoric, are strongly coloured by Christian scripture (his advisers wincingly insist that his decision, as education secretary, to send a signed Bible to every school was a personal one).

His parents were eager that their bright young son should move up in life, and when, aged 11, he passed the entrance exam for the most prestigious private school in Aberdeen, Robert Gordon’s College, they stretched the pennies to pay the fees. Their son has never stopped thanking them for it. Gove adored Robert Gordon’s. In a sense, he was born there. The vividly drawn persona we are familiar with today emerged, fully formed, at school, in an act of audacious self-invention. The young Gove sought not merely to fit in with his socially superior peers, but to stand out from them. He rode an old-fashioned bicycle to school, wore suits, recited poetry and starred in debates.

Unusually confident, he excelled at most things, except sport. He was known for asking challenging questions of his teachers in a way that threatened to overturn the classroom hierarchy. Speaking to the Times in 2014, a former teacher recalled, “At the start of every lesson a hand would go up and it would be Michael. The thought would go through my mind, ‘What is he going to ask me now and will I know the answer?’” He was admired by classmates for his cheeky rejoinders to teachers, for which he occasionally received beatings with a leather belt, and was generally thought of as a good egg. A former classmate told the Guardian, “I had glasses and red hair, and I vividly remember being bullied in the changing room, and Michael tried to stop it.”

The Gove family fell on hard times after Ernest’s business was affected by diminishing fish stocks and new EU regulations. Christine, who had left her job to look after the children, returned to work as a classroom assistant at Aberdeen School for the Deaf, where Angela, severely deaf, was a pupil. The fees for Robert Gordon’s were no longer affordable but the school awarded Gove a scholarship. He must have felt ­heroic: his brilliance had saved the family from humiliation.

Precocious children often grow into adults with something of the child about them, and there is something eternally schoolboyish about Gove. The reflected admiration of his parents, teachers and classmates still radiates from his smooth-cheeked face. There remains also something of the outsider, who can’t resist sly jabs at insiders. Soon after becoming education secretary, he railed against a system in which “rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children”. He was probably surrounded by a few of the former in Robert Gordon’s, not to mention the Tory party.

He studied English at Oxford, where he was an active member of the Conservative Association, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. After graduation, he failed an interview with the Conservative Research Department because he was – at least as he tells it – “insufficiently political” and “insufficiently Conservative”. He returned to Scotland, landing his first job in journalism at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. On moving to London, he worked in television, including a stint as a presenter, before joining the Times, where he met ­Sarah Vine, with whom he has two young children: William, ten, and Beatrice, 12.

Gove started as a reporter, before becoming a leader writer and columnist. In print, the well-mannered, self-ironising young fellow was transformed into a Churchillian warrior. A self-proclaimed neoconservative, he was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war and an implacable foe of Islamic terrorism, about which he wrote a book, Celsius 7/7 (this was his second book; the first was Michael Portillo: the Future of the Right). His columns were stylish, if shallow, displaying a debater’s grasp of foreign policy, in which abstract nouns such as freedom, appeasement and resolve carried all before them.

In 2002, Gove co-founded the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, which became a hub for ambitious and metropolitan young Tories. He made friends with Cameron, Osborne and Steve Hilton (Cameron’s former director of strategy), who were impressed by his fluent articulation of political ideas. Cameron, a rising star of the Tory benches, persuaded his friend to leave journalism for politics, and in the May 2005 general election he was elected MP for Surrey Heath.

In 2007, when Cameron had been leader of the party for two years, his shadow education secretary David Willetts was bold enough to point out that grammar schools are not engines of social mobility. The Tory grass roots, never entirely comfortable with their leader’s modernisation project, revolted. Cameron sacked Willetts and asked Gove to fill the vacancy. He did so with alacrity. It wasn’t just the promotion: here was a brief into which he could pour himself.

Gove’s friends always refer you to his childhood to explain his motivation in politics. It is said, not least by himself, that he carries with him an acute awareness of his own good fortune. What if he hadn’t escaped the (presumed) poverty of his birth mother? What if his adoptive parents hadn’t cared so much about education? What if he hadn’t got a scholarship? He wants others, less lucky than he was, to have the same life chances, and believes education is a bridge out of poverty, into the freedoms enjoyed by elites. (In a speech at Brighton College in 2012, Gove bemoaned the extent of private-school dominance. “In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”) Government, he argues, bears a responsibility to help the disadvantaged become the “authors of their own life story”. As right-wing ideologies go, it is hardly Ayn Rand.

The team Gove recruited to help in his new job included Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Iain Duncan Smith; Henry de Zoete, who had worked at the Tory think tank Reform; and Sam Freedman, an education wonk from Policy Exchange. The advisers made for quite a similar group. They were all men in their thirties and forties. None had taught, or had children of school age. They had all attended Oxford or Cambridge. They were voracious readers, particularly of history, and confident talkers who relished intellectual debate. None was a fan of David Cameron, whom they regarded as irredeemably superficial. They had little time for party politics, and didn’t cherish political ambitions (nearly all of them left politics after resigning from Gove’s team). They saw themselves as sojourners in government, on special assignment to ameliorate the lot of the nation’s children, and they were united in admiration for a man they ­regarded as the only politician in Britain with the intellect, bravery and moral purpose to lead the mission.


Gove inspires loyalty among those who have worked for or with him, even those who weren’t close to him. Those I spoke to for this piece declined, for the most part, to speak on the record, not so much out of fear as concern that they might upset him.

In private, it is said, Gove is funny, acerbic, mischievous. A senior adviser to Ed Miliband during the last parliament told me that if he bumped into Gove in the foyer of Portcullis House, a sotto voce conversation would ensue, spiced with some less-than-reverential comment about one of Gove’s colleagues, or even his boss. Gove can converse knowledgeably and passionately on most topics. He devours books, mainly history (particularly about Britain and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the really big things got done) and political biography. He loves Wagner, and has made the pilgrimage to the annual festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria. His son is a football fan and so, having had limited interest in the sport, Gove is now an expert on it. His mental bandwidth is high: whether it’s culture or briefing documents, his ability to acquire and absorb information is impressive.

Everyone mentions his politeness. He is elaborately courteous, not just with friends and potential allies but with opponents,
junior civil servants and children. If he wants to charm you, he looks you in the eye and listens intently. His politeness is rigorously enforced, as if developed to constrain some anarchic inner force. It can also be used as a weapon. “Michael is aggressively polite,” a former colleague of his told me. “He uses his politeness to make people feel uncomfortable; to put them out of their comfort zone.” The politeness has a distancing effect even on those who know and like him. “I worked with him closely for years,” said the former colleague, “and I barely knew him.” A friend told me, “There is a mystery at the heart of Michael.” Another said that he imagines Gove’s formality extends even to his wife, although her columns sometimes read like deliberate attempts to deformalise her husband: she has discussed his inept driving, his aromatic orange corduroys, and even the couple’s conjugal relations (“just another chore . . . to tick off your endless to-do list”).

The psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips talks about something that artists and children have in common: a need to hide, and at the same time be seen. You often get the sense, observing Gove, that he is trying to conceal something and also to let you know about it. After finishing an elegant non-answer to a difficult question, he will smirk, momentarily, as if to signal collusion in an ironic joke. He presents the decorous façade, and he wants you to know there is something even more interesting behind it.

Whatever else there is, there is decency. In 2013, Mary Bousted, the head of the ATL teachers’ union, was attacking Gove in the media. So she was surprised, when she got married that year, to receive a card and ­present from the minister. “Personally, he’s very kind,” she said. In 2014 the wife of his former policy adviser Freedman gave birth to a stillborn child. Freedman hadn’t been in regular contact with his old boss since leaving government. Gove wrote a handwritten letter of condolence to him and his wife. Freedman was moved. “It was a thoughtful letter: not dashed off, but something he had clearly spent time on.”


In May 2010, at the age of 42, Gove ­became secretary of state for children, families and schools. He came to office unusually well prepared. “Gove identified the right challenges,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, the head teachers’ union. “He had mastered his brief to a degree rarely seen.” Bousted, as leader of the ATL, was taken to dinner by Gove shortly after he took office. She was charmed, and found him “knowledgeable, interested and committed”. Mark Lehain, headmaster of Bedford Free School, who belongs to the small but vocal group of teachers who have backed Gove in public, told me: “Those guys had a plan. They realised that you can’t reform any one part of the system in isolation. So they had thought about everything: school structures, academic standards, teacher training . . .”

They also had the contours of a powerful narrative, with a victim, an enemy and a solution. Children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, were being failed by a complacent and self-interested education establishment. “We identified three groups that were holding back the [teaching] profession,” a former adviser to Gove said: local authorities, the unions, and the universities doing teacher training. “We went after all three.” Gove believed that local authorities were too inept and lazy to turn around failing schools, that the unions were more interested in the welfare of teachers than in children, and that head teachers were better qualified to train their staff than woolly-headed Marxist sociologists.

The answer was to liberate schools from local authority control. Academies – self-governing schools, funded directly from central government and sponsored by businesses, church groups, charities or private schools – were introduced in a cautious manner by Tony Blair’s government, as a last resort, to improve failing schools in poor areas that were managed incompetently by their local authority. Gove proposed to accelerate this programme, and to make academy status the default for new schools, breaking the link with disadvantaged communities. He would also introduce “free schools”, allowing groups of teachers or parents to set up on their own if they were unhappy with the local schools available to them.

Members of Gove’s circle have differing recollections of how preconceived was his offensive on the education establishment. Certainly, in his opposition days, Gove made efforts to charm and persuade most of the key players in education policy, including Labour Party reformers and amenable trade unionists. But once he was in office, both sides dug in, and battle commenced.

In his Whitehall office, Gove hung pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. Like any good radical, he believed in the necessity of advancing at speed. “Michael knew that politics is fickle and that he might soon be out of a job,” a friend who was with him in those early days told me. “We needed to get as much done as quickly as possible.” Seventy-seven days after the 2010 general election, he had pushed a hastily drafted bill into law, containing a blizzard of provisions, at the centre of which were new powers for the secretary of state to remove schools from local authority control. The civil service
had advised him that it would take three to five years to open the first free schools. The department opened 20 by September 2011, and a hundred more the following year.

Gove’s team felt under siege, from within and without. They inherited a group of ­officials sceptical about their pedal-to-the-metal policymaking. A senior civil servant told the Times, “Michael Gove is one of those conviction politicians who has got very strong prior beliefs about what works, and he isn’t that fussed about evidence.” Their plans were frequently leaked to the press or the opposition; documents were stolen from photocopiers. Every day brought new
crises that required urgent attention.

In the summer of 2010 came what one former adviser calls “a grade A catastrophe”. Labour had started a £55bn programme of investment in new school buildings, known as Building Schools for the Future, that Gove regarded as a fiscal extravagance. He peremptorily cancelled it, without attention to the details of which schools should or shouldn’t get the buildings they had been promised. A panicked department couldn’t get the list of affected schools right. Again and again it published the wrong list, as teachers howled and the press shrieked. Gove made a humiliating apology on the floor of the House. Tom Watson called him a “miserable little pipsqueak”. He was on the brink of resigning – or getting fired.


That he stuck it out was due in part to the intervention of his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is impossible to understand Gove’s time at Education, or indeed Gove, without considering his relationship with the man described by Nick Clegg as “loopy” and by others as brilliant or bullying, or both. Cummings got to know Gove while he was running a campaign against the euro; Gove was then at the Times. Later, when Iain Duncan Smith became leader of the Conservatives, he appointed Cummings as his director of strategy, though that didn’t last long: he was too jagged-edged for Tory MPs to cope with, and Duncan Smith was too cautious for Cummings, who has a distaste for the fudges of Westminster politics. Cummings spent the next two and a half years in a bunker under his father’s farm in Durham, reading books on astrophysics and military history and constructing an elaborate theory of the shortcomings of the British state, before returning to the fray on behalf of his friend.

Cummings, like Gove, has a love of argument, as well as a suspicion, bordering on contempt, for those who compromise, muddle through and fail to pick sides. But he doesn’t have Gove’s politesse. He cares little – or even notices – what people think of him. In a departmental meeting, Gove might make his dissatisfaction clear by his tone, but it would be Cummings who told the civil servants they were a shambles, or who shut meetings down abruptly, and Cummings who sent around hectoring emails, with liberal use of capital letters, to staff in the department.

When Gove’s critics bemoan his pugilistic tendency, they usually identify Cummings as a bad influence, a devil in his ear. But they are brothers in arms, and Gove, if anything, is the more impulsive provocateur. His instinct for combat is tempered, however, by his desire to please and entertain. Privately, Gove has referred to Cummings as his “daemon” – in Philip Pullman’s terms, an expression of your personality that in the real world must be hidden.

Gove valued Cummings’s street-fighting skills and his fearlessness in a crisis. When the Building Schools for the Future storm blew in, Cummings was in exile, after being banned from joining Gove in government by Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s communications director, who knew Cummings would never be subject to message discipline. Cummings visited Great Smith Street and told Gove to stop apologising: it only made him look weak. Gove started to return fire. Eventually, the officials got the right list out. The media moved on. Sam Freedman told me that this was the moment when the political steel entered Gove’s soul. “He realised that he was always going to be under attack,” his former policy adviser said,
“so he had to be on the attack himself.”

From then on, punches were met with harder counterpunches. Gove declared it his mission to vanquish “the enemies of promise” (these enemies included “the blob”, his term for education academics, but which many took to mean teachers). An unnamed adviser told the Financial Times, “There’s institutional power that needs to be destroyed. A lot of our job is walking along the cliff edge and stamping their fingers off.” Melodramatic combat metaphors proliferated. Gove described the early free schools as “the first on the beach at D-Day”. He told the Times, through an adviser, that he was “shellshocked” in the first months of government but that now, “every time anyone shoots at me and misses it is exhilarating knowing I am still alive”. Mary Bousted told me that she came to think of the Gove she’d met over dinner as “an elaborate façade”.

Revolutions are messy, and mistakes are inevitable: the radical accepts this as the price of speed. Cummings is fond of the Facebook motto “Move fast and break things”. Gove’s version, coined in response to questioning from a select committee, is “Coherence comes at the end of the process”. But Gove’s team made many of their big moves without thinking them through. Their targets had a random quality: why 500 free schools? They threw cash at schools that agreed to become academies, without extracting any promises from them in return, with the result that some schools took the money without changing much at all except their name. They neglected to design a proper system for deciding who should be allowed to sponsor academies, or for assessing whether the trusts were doing a good job, leading to an ongoing series of snarl-ups. Eventually they had to ask a Tory peer, the hedge-fund manager and venture capitalist John Nash, to invent a sponsor evaluation policy. Its workings remain mysterious, even to those involved in academies.

Gove’s personal interventions in curriculum reform – his crusade to put British history first, for instance – generated plenty of news but didn’t seem to be based on much beyond the minister’s own prejudices, and quickly got bogged down. The curriculum his team left behind wasn’t, in the end, all that different from the one they inherited. An attempt to replace GCSEs with O-levels blew up on the launchpad. Announcing his climbdown, the minister described the reform as “a bridge too far”.

Despite all this, Gove’s reputation rose within the Tory party and among Tory supporters. His attacks on left-wingers, bureaucrats and unions provided endless fodder for right-wing journalists, who hailed him as the star of Cameron’s government, and even as a potential successor. The story of head teachers and children being freed from the grip of left-wing oppressors was irresistible, and made all the mishaps seem worthwhile. Yet even as it propelled Gove forward, it was undermining his reforms – and him.


If you want to change the education system, you need teachers, at least a large proportion of them, on your side. “When the classroom door is shut,” Russell Hobby told me, “teachers will go back to doing what they’ve always done – unless you bring them with you.” Conor Ryan, formerly an adviser to one of Gove’s most consequential predecessors, David Blunkett, told me that although Blunkett wasn’t afraid of upsetting the teaching unions, he always made sure to have at least one ally among them, too. Education secretaries are rarely popular with teachers, but none has been quite as unpopular as Gove.

Why did teachers so revile him? Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance of a Conservative education secretary implementing policies with a progressive bent, such as the Pupil Premium (extra funding for schools with a disadvantaged intake). Mark Lehain, the head of Bedford Free School, said, “For years, teachers have been asking for more control over how they teach, and for funding according to the needs of kids. Along comes Gove – a Tory – and he does all that. And there’s uproar.”

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher. She was invited to Great Smith Street more than once to give Gove’s advisers a classroom-level perspective. She liked them, and felt listened to, even when she was being directly critical. But the divide between plan and reality was too great. “The world you inhabit if you’re in Whitehall, with the neat policy solutions and the sense of moral purpose, is just so different to being in a classroom of thirty children chucking stuff at you, or dealing with a kid whose parents are pimping them out at the weekend,” McInerney said.

When I asked her if the response of teachers to Gove was disproportionate, she drew a deep breath. “My school was in buildings that had been rendered inadequate for ten years. Two generations of children had been through the doors of a condemned building. We were six weeks from having a new one. Then he cancelled it. Imagine being the head teacher. You’ve spent three years on a plan for the new building, consulting with parents, hoping that in 18 months or so it might be a place where you don’t feel ill every time you walk in. And someone comes along and says, ‘Sorry, no.’ Ten years!”

She paused, but continued, in a voice tightening with remembered fury. “Then they whack you over the head for teaching media studies instead of computing, and tell you that if you fail on this, all your senior leaders will be sacked and replaced by an academy trust. You don’t need to know who this trust is, or why it’s going to be running your school – that will be decided by a hedge-
fund manager. Oh, and we’re changing the curriculum, so every lesson you’ve ever planned in the last five years is obsolete, and you can’t use any of it again. Imagine the panic, in any workplace, if all of those things hit you! And every week he’s ­announcing this stuff in the Sunday fucking Times, which is owned by his previous boss.”

This degree of anger towards Gove baffles his advisers. One of them told me, “He gave more speeches talking more positively about teachers than any secretary of state has ever done.” But, to teachers, the praise felt fake. Politeness comes at a cost to authenticity: it is, by definition, a formal mode of expression, used to conceal what we really feel, and one problem with Gove’s praise for teachers is that it felt like mere politeness. The other is that it was double-edged. Debra Kidd, a teacher and blogger who became one of his most high-profile critics, told me: “In every speech where he praised teachers, he alienated teachers.” When Gove talked about “the best generation of teachers ever”, it felt as if he were trying to divide teachers into the ones who “got it” and those who didn’t – into goodies and baddies. Teachers came to feel that they were being called “enemies of promise”.

During an onstage question-and-answer session at the Institute of Education in London in 2012, Gove declared it was time to believe in the “educability” of every child. A furious member of the audience interrupted, telling him that all teachers have high ambitions for their pupils. Most politicians would have reacted with praise and reassurance. Gove felt it opportune to tell a roomful of teachers that some of them plainly were failing children, because there are failing schools. It was logically correct, and it was stupid.


The colleague of Gove’s who called him the most interesting man in politics added a caveat: “Apart from, maybe, George Osborne.” Osborne is interesting in a different way, however. He is a talented tactician, skilled at accumulating power, but he hasn’t yet conveyed a sense of purpose, other than the advancement of his and his party’s interests. Gove is the opposite. He is a storyteller who has honed the events of his own life into the kind of personal story beloved of US presidential candidates. Yet he isn’t interested in political process (he was a terrible chief whip) and is more likely to fixate on obstacles to change, such as EU regulations or Whitehall inertia. Osborne takes satisfaction in working the machine; Gove would rather take a hammer to it. Osborne likes to repeat Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim about getting votes: the first rule of politics is to be able to count. Gove, as even his friends admit, is not good with numbers.

One of the interesting things about Gove is that he is interesting in public as well as in private. Most politicians who rise to the level of cabinet minister have either learned the art of being dull in public or were born with a gift for it. But in speeches and interviews, Gove is compelled to sparkle. He cannot flip an internal switch and become an automaton. This makes him likeable as a person, especially to journalists. It can be useful for a politician, too – Gove knew how to make headlines without having new policies. Yet it makes him an unstable figure, prone to combust, and it puts a natural limit on his ambition. He has always denied, convincingly, any desire to be prime minister.

If you are Lynton Crosby and an election is hoving into view, you do not look kindly on spontaneity of expression. We may never know at which point Crosby began to reconsider his view of the education minister. The meeting at Great Smith Street in November 2013 took place just at the point at which Gove’s media-buoyed self-confidence was highest. He was showing signs of boredom with his day job. The major reforms had passed into law, and the mechanics of consolidation held little interest for him. By 2014 he was casting around for attention. In an article for the Daily Mail, he attacked what he took to be the prevailing view of the First World War. Spraying bullets wildly, he hit historians, the BBC (for Blackadder) and even his own government, criticising the official opinion that Germany should not be blamed for the war.

In March that year, he made further headlines by complaining about the number of Old Etonians in cabinet, which he described to a Financial Times journalist as “preposterous”. This aligned so closely to one of Labour’s main lines of attack that it can only have infuriated No 10, including Crosby.

Three months later, at dinner with former colleagues from the Times, Gove discussed an alleged plot in Birmingham schools to indoctrinate children into Islamist ideology. Pushing the boundaries of his ministerial remit, he had hired an anti-terrorism expert to write a report on the problem. Now, forgetting that his comments might be legitimately reported, and no doubt eager to say something interesting to his old peers, Gove blamed the Home Office for failing to “drain the swamp” of extremism. On seeing the Times front page the next day, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was furious. In the subsequent fallout, May was forced to sack her closest adviser, but it was Gove who was made to apologise by a furious Prime Minister.

In July, Gove gave an interview to Allegra Stratton on BBC TV’s Newsnight. She asked him about a poll which had found that less than a fifth of teachers supported him. Gove started to stumble over his words. Determined to regain his customary verbal command, he accidentally made explicit what he had previously only implied. “What I can tell you is that outstanding teachers, and outstanding head teachers, are, I find, overwhelmingly in favour of what we’re doing.” Stratton: “So it’s the bad ones that don’t get it?” Gove: “Yes.”

Five days later he was fired.


We often tell ourselves that we want politicians to have ideals; to stand for things; to keep promises; to speak their minds rather than parrot the party line; to stay true to who they are; to care about more than their own career. Gove does all this. He really is, in the disdainful phrase of that senior civil servant who spoke to the Times, “one of those conviction politicians”. That he is hated by some and unloved by many tells us something about the difference between what we wish for, and what, in practice, we want.

Mark Lehain of Bedford Free School told me that although Gove is unpopular with the teaching profession his reforms are not. “Not many teachers would want to give up on greater autonomy, or reverse the changes to funding, or to exams.” Even Gove’s critics usually concede that he made some lastingly important reforms. He restored integrity to a curriculum and assessment system that had lost its focus on academic standards. He made it easier for central government to remove failing schools from the grip of incompetent local authorities.

But he never solved, or even made a serious attempt to solve, the biggest problem of all: how take the formula of the best schools and replicate it at scale. There are a few outstanding academy chains, such as Ark or the Harris Federation (both of which pre-date his reign), whose schools turn in excellent results on behalf of children from disadvantaged families: children who would otherwise have been failed by the system. (These schools remain perversely undercelebrated by the left – the Guardian and New Statesman writer Suzanne Moore described academies as “madrasas for the middle classes” – and in recent years Gove’s radicalism has been mirrored by Labour’s conservatism; under Jeremy Corbyn the party is now committed to abolishing academy status.)

It has not been easy to find enough trusts capable of running academies well, however, or sufficient numbers of good head teachers. Any solution probably requires combining the best local authorities with the best academy chains. Some local authorities are bad at running schools; some do it exceptionally well. Gove’s insistence on cutting them out was as myopic as the left-wing insistence that only local government bureaucracies should be allowed to manage schools.

In time, his reforms may be shown to be less significant than they once seemed. There is no evidence that academies are, on average, better than schools under local authority control. He did not break the power of the unions, because the unions did not have much power to begin with. The school system has been fractured, but it hasn’t reconstituted itself into a new form. Its size and complexity – 500,000 teachers in 20,000 schools – make it resistant to big changes from above. Maybe it can only ever be nudged along, and then only by someone with a dogged attention to detail.

Gove might have stayed in his job for longer, and got more done, had he not been so determined to stage a drama of radicalism, with himself in the lead. “He would ­announce policies in a Sunday newspaper, in a way that was, inevitably, free of nuance. So they were bound to be rejected by teachers on Monday morning,” says Russell Hobby of the head teachers’ union. “That made me wonder what his priority was: to make the reforms work, or to win arguments?” A former MP who worked with Gove on education told me: “Michael enjoys battle. Not just winning, but the process – being noticed for it.”

His gift for rhetoric created a legacy itself, however. As Crosby noted, Gove changed the political weather around education. The Conservative Party does not clamour quite as it did for the return of grammar schools. It is much more likely than it was to take pride in the state school system: witness the jubilant coverage in the Tory press of this year’s GCSE results, full of favourable comparisons to private schools. David Cameron is the first serving Conservative prime minister to have a child at a state secondary school (his daughter Nancy attends the Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, as does Gove’s daughter). It is also harder now, wherever you stand on the political spectrum, to write off certain schools or school districts as faced with an impossible task of educating the poor. Nobody wants to be accused of being an enemy of promise. The education blogger Debra Kidd, a vociferous critic of Gove, told me that she recently attended a conference at which the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was speaking. “She was so bland that I found myself thinking, ‘I miss Michael Gove.’ He was always interesting.”


Gove has a lot on his hands at ­Justice – the Human Rights Act, criminal justice reform, prisons – and he has once again convinced himself that time is short (one of his friends indicated that he may have to resign over the EU referendum if Cameron insists on collective responsibility). He will not spend much time or political capital on efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act. Cameron has ruled out a withdrawal from the European Convention, which makes the complicated and troublesome business of replacing one bill of rights with another seem particularly pointless.

His most urgent task is to steady a criminal justice system on the brink of crisis, a problem he inherited from his immediate predecessor, the flamboyantly incompetent Chris Grayling. Funding for legal aid has been slashed to a level that gravely endangers the quality of justice available to the poor. Criminal lawyers are overstretched and underpaid. The system is creaking, clogged and slow, and makes victims of victims; it can take two years for a rape charge to come to trial. If he improves access to justice, he will win a widely applauded victory.

Then there is penal reform. Prison staffing has been cut by a third in the past five years without any drop in the number of prisoners. Prison officers therefore feel it increasingly necessary to confine inmates to their cells, and to shut out the outside world altogether. But keeping prisoners inactive and isolated only creates misery and violence, and makes it more likely they will reoffend on release. Gove believes in the state’s moral responsibility to those in its charge. He also sees an opportunity. By moving the emphasis of the prison system towards rehabilitation and education, he can reduce prison numbers and hence spending: prisoners who put the work in can be considered for early release. Populist right-wing opposition effectively ended Kenneth Clarke’s attempt to do something similar, but Gove is a wilier player of the Tory press than late-period Clarke.

It is a challenge that could have been designed for Gove. In an early speech on the subject, he pointed out that a high proportion of prisoners come from homes scarred by poverty, violence or drug abuse; but for a twist of fate, that might have been him. The system is not nearly as large or complex as the school system, and is more amenable to reshaping from the centre. This time it is prisoners, not children, whose development is being stymied, and prison governors, rather than head teachers, who need to be empowered, to allow faith groups, charities, and employers, into prisons. The prison service, however, is resistant to partnering with outsiders.

In the first months in his new job, he has been conciliatory, charming and curious. He has praised barristers warmly and invited the likes of the Howard League for Penal Reform, usually kept at a distance from Tory governments, into his big tent. But then, this is how he started at Education. Friends of his told me he now understands, better than he did, the need to build alliances. But the gap between knowing something intellectually and conforming to it can be wide.

Lawyers, when he reflects, might make a juicy target (somebody who was present in the room for a cabinet meeting in the last parliament recalled Gove making a quip to the effect that he wanted a country in which there were more railway lines and fewer lawyers). Many voters will happily believe that barristers are guilty of Spanish practices. The prison service is a monopoly. If it is standing in the way of prisoners becoming the authors of their own life stories, won’t it have to be taken on?

In a column published the day before the general election, Sarah Vine raged against the government machine. Her targets included the civil service (“neither civil nor a service”), the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and Speaker John Bercow. “Politics is the opposite of meritocratic,” she wrote: “keep your head down and get on with your job, and you’ll get no glory.” Her husband is hardly in need of this lesson. Reform through consensus may be a fine thing, but no glory accompanies it. There is likely to come a time soon when Michael Gove feels the need, perhaps after due provocation, to take the pin out of a grenade and hurl it into enemy territory.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide