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Coffee House

Michael Gove and the fight for the moral high ground

3 February 2014

3:56 PM

3 February 2014

3:56 PM

Michael Gove’s speech today was, as James explained at the weekend, a pitch from the Tories to be the optimists of the 2015 election. He wanted to have a little boast about the success of the government’s education reforms in raising the desirability of a state education. He said:

‘When Channel Four make documentaries about great comprehensives – academies – in Essex and Yorkshire, when BBC3 make heroes out of tough young teachers, when even Tatler publishes a guide to the best state schools – you know tectonic plates have started to shift.’

This is hardly the running down of teachers or state schools that Gove’s critics like to complain about. But this speech has still attracted a fair bit of rage. This isn’t a great surprise, because Michael Gove now provokes rage from the teaching unions and the Left whenever he remarks on the weather, let alone praises his own education policies or announces anything new. The NUT’s Christine Blower said ‘it is time we had an Education Secretary that did more than play to the gallery’ and that his announcement of a longer school day would be ‘counterproductive’. Tristram Hunt says that ‘until Michael Gove commits to [ensuring all teachers have teaching qualifications], he is ruling himself out of any serious debate about how we raise standards in our schools’.

Why does the Left hate Gove so much? The unions don’t like him because they don’t like any possibility that the conditions for their members could change. That’s fair enough, because it’s their job to protect the best conditions possible for the teachers who pay union membership fees. But it doesn’t automatically give them a right to adjudicate on the wisdom of education reforms as a whole: they represent producers, not consumers. They also don’t like Gove because Gove likes fighting them. He’s a pugnacious sort and has decided that the only way to deal with the Blob is to engage in out-and-out warfare with it.

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Labour doesn’t like him because even though he’s continuing and developing Blair’s reforms (which, to be fair, plenty of Labour people didn’t like at the time anyway), they are possessive about the moral high ground on education, just as they are on the NHS. They’ve given up trying to stay on that high ground on welfare and immigration, and are simply trying to neutralise the party’s image in these areas, but they are more jealous of health and education, which is why Andy Burnham gave a speech today arguing that ‘the NHS has never been in a more dangerous position than it is right now’.

But Gove’s drive to make the Conservatives the party that ‘spreads privilege’ through school reform so that good education doesn’t need to be purchased through school fees or high house prices in a catchment area means it is worth being hated by unions and Labourites. Personally I think he could be a little less pugnacious: his tussle with Tristram Hunt over the First World War appeared to be a classic example of him starting a fight in an empty room, but it’s easy to see how scrapping becomes a habit when you have to deal with the Blob every day.

You can read the full speech here.

P.S. Incidentally, Dennis Sewell predicted in 2010 that this fight would be the ‘most thrilling contest’ of the Conservatives’ first 100 days in power: it still is one of the most vigorous and far less manufactured than anything the Lib Dems can come up with.


Elizabeth Truss, Tristram Hunt and Christine Blower will all be speaking at The Spectator’s next Schools Conference on 3 April 2014. Click here to find out more.

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