New Times,
New Thinking.

16 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Gove’s Great War, a speechless Simon Hoggart, and teaching the young to vote

Though he always had lightness of touch, Simon began his career as a journalist covering Northern Ireland, Washington and then Westminster as a political editor.

By Peter Wilby

One of the mysteries of British politics is why the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, should be regarded as a man of mighty intellect. He is a journalist of crude, populist instincts, as demonstrated by his Daily Mail article on how the First World War should be commemorated. Schoolchildren, he argues, should learn about it “in the right way”, honouring “the heroism and sacrifice of our great-grandparents” and rejecting the supposedly left-wing view, propagated by fictional TV programmes such as Blackadder, that the war was “a misbegotten shambles”. In other words, he wants to replace one oversimplified account with another.

The point of studying history is neither to honour nor to denigrate our ancestors but to understand how it shaped our world. That understanding changes as our world changes. For example, it is impossible to comprehend the resilience of the project for European unity, even after the near-collapse of the euro, without some grasp of the effects of the continent’s two 20th-century wars. Gove, a Eurosceptic, doesn’t want teachers to dwell on that. He prefers them to present the 1914-18 war as an old-fashioned tale of goodies and baddies.

Performance test

I first met the Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart, who has died aged 67, in curious circumstances. In the early 1970s, I flew to Paris for the Observer to interview his father, the sociologist and cultural critic Richard Hoggart, over lunch. On my arrival, Hoggart Sr, then an assistant director at Unesco, said that his son Simon, who happened to be in town, would join us and he hoped I wouldn’t mind.

I was trying to write an intimate profile of Hoggart Sr, whose best-known work, The Uses of Literacy, was partly autobiographical. So Simon sat through a two-hour meal as I invited his rather earnest and high-minded father to talk about his working-class family from Leeds and, since The Uses of Literacy referred to sexual experience in the working classes being “more easily and earlier acquired than in other social groups”, his youthful sexual experiences. Simon looked, by turns, bored and embarrassed. “How would you assess my performance as a parent?” his father asked him at one stage. For possibly the only time in his life, Simon was speechless.

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Light entertainment

Though he always had lightness of touch, Simon began his career as a journalist covering Northern Ireland, Washington and then Westminster as a political editor. His eventual move towards the lighter side of the trade – parliamentary sketchwriting, food and wine columns, a chatty Saturday column – may have been a form of rebellion against his father’s serious and moralistic tone. The miracle was that he got away with poking fun at Nicholas Soames’s corpulence, Sir Peter Tapsell’s speech defect, John Prescott’s deficiencies of syntax, Michael Martin’s accent, and so on. Such are the staples of sketchwriting, but Guardian readers (or at least Guardian sub-editors) usually frown on mockery of such afflictions. Hoggart sailed on, sometimes even mocking belief in global warming.

Learning to be selfish

The Tories’ commitment to protect pensions while looking for yet more cuts in welfare benefits for younger age groups is driven purely by electoral considerations. Three-quarters of pensioners bother to vote against barely half of under-25s. The fault, I suspect, lies with the schools, which, if they try to explain democracy to young people at all, concentrate on extolling its abstract virtues. Instead, teachers should broadcast a simple message of self-interest: if you want lower university fees, higher welfare benefits and better wages after you leave school, ignore Russell Brand, set aside your smartphones and get yourselves down to the polling station.

History repeating

The nearest precedent for the England cricket team’s calamitous performance in Australia was in 1958-59. Then, as now, England had won three consecutive Ashes series and were confidently expected to win a fourth. The touring team included at least ten all-time greats such as May, Cowdrey, Laker, Trueman and Tyson. Yet England lost four of the five Tests by huge margins and, in the other match, drew, thanks partly to rain, after conceding a first-innings lead of 138.

Something in the Australian psyche, it seems, forbids repeated defeats. It also dictates that, once regained, the Ashes will be surrendered only after immense struggle. In the dozen years that followed the 1958-59 defeat, three series ended in ties and two others in Australian victories by a single Test. I fear that piece of history may also repeat itself.

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