Not everyone who disagrees with Gove is a "wrecker" or an "enemy of promise"

The Education Secretary’s combative methods are going to result in bad policy. His them-and-us style is alienating the middle ground and polarising the debate.

 

You know who I hate? Children. Little bastards, with their snot and their questions and their boundless curiosity about the world. You know what I'd do, if it were up to me? I'd thwart them. Seriously, I'd thwart the bloody lot of them. I’d deprive them of vital general knowledge, not teach them to add up or spell, and we'll see who's laughing then, eh?

Except, obviously I don't think that. Because no one thinks that. Until yesterday, I didn't think it was even possible to un-self-consciously use the word "thwart" unless you were a character in The Lord of the Rings.

Our education secretary, though, thinks otherwise. In yesterday's Mail on Sunday defence of his plans to reform the national curriculum, arguing that "millions of talented young people  [are] being denied the opportunity to succeed... Far too many are having their potential thwarted by the Enemies of Promise.”

Who are these enemies, I hear you ask? They are the education establishment, a nebulous mixture of Marxist academics, lefty teachers unions, Brownite apologists and orcs, which is trying to block the coalition's brave crusade to raise standards in our schools. "There are still a tiny minority of teachers," Gove explains solemnly, "who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.” This is an actual sentence in an article credited to the secretary of state.

The trigger for this latest offensive against the dark forces on all sides was this letter in the Independent . Signed by 100 academics, it argues that the new curriculum is a bit on the narrow side, and will drive schools to prioritise rote-learning over critical thinking. Read after Gove’s response, the letter in question frankly comes as a bit of a disappointment.

I'm not a curriculum expert. My only experience of teaching was 18 months attempting to tutor a succession of teenage boys, all of whom sacked me, so I'm not going to attempt to defend either the new National Curriculum or its predecessor. For all I know the academics are talking rubbish, and Gove's version is by far the superior (although the fact it features the heptarchy, which I’m fairly sure was debunked years ago, gives me some pause for thought).

So let’s leave aside who’s right, and consider the tone of the two pieces of writing. The academics’ letter is staid and considered, and while it's clearly based on opinion as much as fact, the opinions in question are about policy, not about those who make it. Gove's article, by contrast, is hysterical and combative and assumes that anyone who doesn't agree with him is a subversive element that needs to be utterly crushed. In the Gove-ite view of the universe, you're either with him or against him. It's the sort of education policy document one might get from Pope Urban II.

Does this matter? If Gove is right – and I can't say for certain that he's not – then does the tone he uses to make his case really make any difference?

It does, for two reasons. The first is that it alienates the middle ground. There are those (I am one) who agree with Gove's aims, but are unconvinced by his methods. Every time he lumps us all together as nothing more than a bunch of Trots, it makes us less willing to listen, and less content to offer the benefit of the doubt. In other words, Gove’s endless rhetoric about the implacable enemies of reform is creating the very monolithic establishment that he claims he’s out to destroy. Just consider the cognitive dissonance required to write the line "Stephen Twigg chose to side with the Marxists" to see what I mean.

But there’s a more important reason why the them-and-us routine is A Bad Thing: it leads to bad policy.

There are problems with a number of coalition schools policies. Questions over how you scale up good academy chains while clamping down on weak ones; over how to find buildings for new schools; over how we’re going to find a quarter of a million extra school places by this September. All these problems have been looming for a while.

So why have they not been addressed? Because, one suspects, that those who pointed them out were instantly dismissed as wreckers and enemies of promise. By questioning the government, they instantly showed themselves to be another part of the Blob. I can’t help but thinking that, if Gove was more open to criticism, he’d be more likely to spot when he’d made a mistake.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear