In a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent Michael Gove is a star turn

Nelson Jones <3 Michael Gove.

I love Michael Gove. In an era of bland managerialist politicians the education secretary stands out for his wit, his openness to ideas and his genuine passion for his job. An interview with almost every other front-rank politician (with the exception, if he counts, of Boris Johnson) has become, even for political junkies, an excruciating self-torture, as carefully-rehearsed phrases cascade through the air, regardless of what question is actually being asked. Gove, by contrast, is a joy to listen to. In one recent exchange on World at One, he failed to dismiss entirely talk of Tory dissatisfaction with David Cameron's leadership in the wake of Ukip's recent advance. But he did give the English language a new word – "bonkerooney" – one that well encapsulates the effect he has on many of his detractors both within and without the world of education.

Gove was doing what he does best – or at least doing what he evidently most enjoys – yesterday, tweaking the noses of the educational establishment. Of course it's a truism of British politics that the minister (whether Labour or Conservative – remember David Blunkett?) must always pose as the lonely champion of parents and children against trendy educationalists and complacent teachers. Gove, though, does it with greater than average conviction. His latest speech, given to an audience of teachers from the private sector, garnered headlines largely because of one of the examples he used: a hitherto-obscure online resource that encouraged Year 11 iGCSE students to depict the rise of Hitler in terms of characters from the Mr Men books. The resource's creator accused Gove of "academic snobbery" and defended his concept as giving students a "challenge to get them to think about it in a different way." But it's hard not to see the concept as both infantile and in rather poor taste.

The example, no doubt, was an extreme one, but it served Gove's wider points about the need for rigour and high expectations in all parts of the school system, from the basics of reading and arithmetic, through the study of literature, history and the sciences to a panoply of extra-curricular activities. Teachers and parents should all be grateful for an education secretary who, in contrast to his predecessor Ed Balls who dropped the word from the title of his department, wants to put education at the centre of national life. Instead he has become a convenient hate-figure, his aims at times wilfully misunderstood.

Take history. Gove has been criticised for curriculum proposals based on dates, facts and "heroes and heroines" of British history. A group of leading historians condemned the proposals' "narrowness", claiming that they risked depriving children of "the vast bulk of the precious inheritance of the past" – by which they meant the study of other peoples and other places. There is indeed something naively Whiggish, to a professional historian, about his view of the subject as telling "the British story of progress". But national myths matter, however open to challenge on particular points of detail. Internalising the broad sweep of history, knowing who came after whom, is essential for a sense of rootedness in one's own culture. And children respond naturally to stories.

History can of course be used to teach analytical skills – skills that are needed properly to get to grips with the subject, indeed. But to concentrate on such an instrumental use of history risks reducing it to discrete nuggets of unconnected and interchangeable material. The internal politics of the Ming dynasty is just as fascinating, objectively, as that of the Tudors, and may with the rise of China become just as "relevant", but it will never be part of the mental furniture of this nation, something that every grounded citizen needs to know. That's why teaching children history should begin with facts, and only then start worrying about interpretation.

The same is true of literature, where again Michael Gove is often criticised for his insistence that children be taught the classics and even memorise poetry. What of creativity and imagination? Well, you can have creativity without a solid grounding in facts – most children are naturally expressive – but imagination needs materials to work with. The best creative writers, and even many "trashier" ones (such as the former Member for Corby) tend to have English degrees. Even those that don't are invariably wide and deep readers.

The techniques used to dissect and analyse literature are, as with history, transferable skills with which young people in the modern world need to be equipped. But, again as with history, studying great literature is valuable for its own sake as well. You can teach the same analytical techniques by studying King Lear or last night's episode of EastEnders. In the second case, you've learned to analyse a text. In the first case, you've learnt to analyse a text and you've read King Lear.

In yesterday's speech, Gove wondered allowed if most parents would rather their 17 year old daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch. It's a telling example; and it's not enough to reply that it's better to be turned on to reading by Stephanie Meyer's vampire saga than turned off by George Eliot. It wasn't Gove's point, exactly, but the message sent out to teenage girls by the Twilight is reactionary and dismal in the extreme: save yourself, act submissive and you too may end up with a drop-dead gorgeous immortal on your arm. Stay away from werewolves. Middlemarch, by contrast, though 150 years older, features a free-thinking, active and educated heroine. If we want our daughters to aspire, which provides the better role model?

Of course there's a powerful strain of nostalgia in Gove's vision, easily caricatured as a desire to return to the bad old days of rote-learning and corporal punishment. But his message is more forward-looking and aspirational than that. There's nothing right-wing, as such, about a firm grounding in basic grammar, however much insisting old-fashioned notions of right and wrong may displease sentimentalists like Michael Rosen. Education has always been the greatest engine of social progress and upward mobility, ever since the butcher's son Thomas Wolsey rose to become the chief minister of Henry VIII. Progressive notions of education in the state sector have given us a cabinet dominated by Old Etonians for the first time in fifty years. Gove, himself a scholarship boy, offers a way out: back to basics, perhaps, but also back to the future.

Yesterday Gove also imagined – gender stereotype alert – a parent seeing her teenage son hunched over a laptop. "You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?" Again, he has a point, though I wonder if mention of the addictive iPhone game might not be a subtle dig at David Cameron, who has admitted his own penchant for the kamikaze pig-smashers. It's not enough to reply that in either case the mother would no doubt be relieved that the boy wasn't staring at porn.

Earlier this year I was at a lecture in Cambridge given by Eric Schmidt of Google. Schmidt recalled the stir he caused at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 when he lamented the decline of computer science in schools in favour of an IT curriculum focused on learning to use software. This time he had a different message. "You have a hero in government," he declared, before outlining a new initiative to teach coding in schools. "His name is Michael Gove." The sentiment went down like the proverbial lead balloon with the predominantly academic audience. It may have been an exaggeration – only time will tell whether his reforms to the curriculum and to school organisation take root and yield fruit – but in a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent he is a star turn.

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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution