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.

Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.