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.

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