Gove & the big tent of Blairism

Peter Hitchens fully exposes the extent of the long-standing Blairite tendencies of Michael Gove: “I was amused this morning when newspapers asked why it was that Michael Gove had appointed the Blairite Queen Bee, Sally Morgan, as chairman of OFSTED in the first place. He has now declined to repappoint her, an act (which probably has something to do with the acclelerating and much publicised break-up of the Coalition) for which he is being rather absurdly attacked.

I count Mr Gove as a friend. My liking for him it makes it so much easier to disagree with him. I have argued with him in private for years, on several subjects,  on one occasion in a marvellous ding-dong lasting hours as we strode around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in a biting wind, discussing the meaning and significance of David Cameron. We ended it tired but satisfied that we stood on different sides of several important issues.

Michael reads books and is interested in his opponents. He enjoys arguing as much as I do, if not more, and doesn’t in the least bit mind being disagreed with. Like any sensible person, he sees it as a chance to learn, and actively relishes tough, serious opposition (by which I do not mean obtuse, unresponsive, repetitive resort to conventional wisdom).

I have debated with him in public, where he and Charles Moore were good enough to defend the Tory party against my attacks on it, at an ‘Intelligence Squared’ event in London. The debate was spoiled by the last-minute withdrawal of my supposed ally, who pulled out without good excuse far too late for me to find a proper replacement, and who I shall not name, out of kindness.

The thing that has emerged from all these meetings and arguments is my complete certainty that Michael is not, by my definition, a conservative. Remember that his first major expedition into public life was a biography, not wholly unsympathetic, of Michael Portillo. Mr Portillo was David Cameron before his time, socially, culturally and morally liberal. He was also (and still remains) a better public speaker, and a deeper, more thoughtful and better-educated person than Mr Cameron, which is perhaps why I suspect that Mr Portillo slightly resents Mr Cameron’s relatively easy success, compared with his bitter failure.

But for the definitive understanding of what Michael is about (in the absence of a biography which someone surely ought to write), I have to ask you to pay your way past behind the paywall of Times Newspapers. I can give you only a flavour of what lies there.  First, you should consult an article he wrote for The Times on the 25th February 2003. The headline on it says ‘I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony’.  It is not misleading.

It was the Iraq affair that did it, but not only that. Mr Gove, whom I suspect of being a utopian in foreign affairs, declared ‘All I can say looking at Mr Blair now is “What’s not to like?”’

But he was careful to add that Mr Blair had been ‘right and brave’ on university fees, and (does this remind you of anything?) ‘correct in conceding, to the annoyance of his wife I’m sure, that the European Convention on Human Rights gets in the way of a sane asylum policy.’

More indicative still is a brief article he wrote on the 27th December 1997,  about the Frank Capra film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. For those of you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s about an unspectacularly good man called George Bailey ( a building society manager)  man who – contemplating suicide –  finds out what would have happened if he hadn’t been born, and is allowed a disturbing visit to his home town, Bedford Falls ( a generic American small town) to find out. Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, renamed after the evil, miserable, spiteful landlord who was once kept at bay by George Bailey’s building society. Pottersville is corrupt, sordid, violent and full of grief, individual and general,  because George wasn’t there to prevent these things. Perhaps the most striking change is that of the local bar, formerly a friendly neighbourhood home-from-home, now a raucous, hard-drinking honkytonk joint with an edge of barely-suppressed cruelty. Like most people, I love the film.

But Michael doesn’t.  He said it was ‘truly terrible’, and accused its director Frank Capra of being ‘A Peoria Poujadist who believes small is beautiful but ends up celebrating not just the local but the narrow’.  He declared that Pottersville is a ‘a far more attractive place’ than Bedford Falls , which he calls ‘a communitarian dreamland’ . Michael lieks the ‘freewheeling, cheap-drinking speakeasy atmosphere’ averring that liberty is always (always?!) preferable to constriction, however enlightened.

Well, we’ve heard traces of similar arguments here, and have explained why I disagree with them. In fact, I think this brief article encapsulates my disagreements with Michael more than anything else he’s ever written or said.  But I hardly see why it would be surprising that he, a declared admirer of Mr Blair, would appoint a Blairite to an important job. OFSTED itself, with its doomed aim of improving bad schools through Stalinist exhortation and pressure, is a Blairite project . Michael, though given to sentimental musings about ‘Our Island Story’ and such things is not fundamentally different from the long line of Blairite education secretaries who picked fights with the teachers’ unions to appear as if they were doing something.

In fact, they sit at the apex of a huge egalitarian project with some not very good schools attached. And until its egalitarian purpose is removed, the state school system is bound to be bad – because it puts compulsory equality first, and education a very poor third. Modern government, dedicated to eglitrianism,  can cope with ministers who have good intentions and are intelligent. It absorbs them just the same.

Funny that I thought we were ever on the same side, though I did. The strange thing is that it was the Iraq war and what followed , which enabled many conservative journalists to climb under the flap of the big tent of Blairism, back into the centre of things – and which left me, and many others, beached and marooned on the further shores of hopeless dissent.” (

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