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The ‘Stop Boris’ Hunger Games: an interview with Michael Gove

12 December 2012

2:30 PM

12 December 2012

2:30 PM

On Monday, I interviewed Michael Gove for the new Christmas double issue of The Spectator. It’s out tomorrow but here’s a longer version, arranged in subheadings so CoffeeHousers can skip over bits they’re not interested in.

This is the picture that stands behind Michael Gove’s desk: an imposing McCarthy-era poster which saying: ‘Sure, I want to fight Communism – but how?’ In their less charitable moments, Tories may argue that his Department of Education is as good a place as any to start. The strength of its grip over state schools has long been the subject of political laments and Yes, Minister sketches. Confronting the educational establishment was too much for the Blair reformers and even the Thatcher government. But Gove, the least likely of political warriors, finally appears to be making progress.

The coming battle over teachers’ pay

‘Some things I never imagined we’d be able to accomplish alone, let alone in a coalition government, so relatively quickly,’ he says, when we meet in his office. His Academies Act has allowed most English secondary schools to be freed from government control. His next mission is to rewrite the rules for teachers’ pay, replacing the pay-by-time-served system with pay on merit.

This would give head teachers the power to poach a brilliant maths teacher, for example – or sack a bad one. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, but for the teaching unions it is nothing short of a declaration of war.

‘The trade unions have regarded this as their apostles’ creed,’ says Gove. “Look at the way they justify their existence to members. On the one hand, they justify their existence because they provide protection if you face unfair dismissal or an unfair allegation.  Hopefully, employment law protects you from unfair dismissal and there are other ways – including a marvellous new organisation called Edapt – which can provide you with the insurance that you need.  Okay, what else does a trade union do?  Well it guarantees to a significant part of the profession that they will automatically get a pay increase simply by staying there, there is automatic or near automatic pay progression at every stage.’

This national pay bargaining, he says, is an insult to the skill of teachers.’If you treat everyone as though they’re merely an interchangeable widget in a machine, then that robs the teaching profession of its sacred role.’ And he is supported by some unions. ‘The National Association of Head Teachers has welcomed these proposals because they know that we’re expecting them to drive school improvement. They’re thinking to themselves: ‘The only way we can measure up is if we reward good staff. So, thank heavens the government is giving us the freedom to meet that responsibility’.’

The National Union of Teachers is rather less enthusiastic and is muttering about a nationwide strike. Gove spent 18 months leading up to this point – is he prepared for the battle royal that the NUT may now attempt to wage?’ I hope I am,’ he says.”And I don’t believe that it’s a winning argument for the trades unions to say: ‘We do not want to pay good teachers more.’

Les Ebdon and the soft bigotry of low expectations

It’s not his only battle. Another is persuading state schools to prepare pupils for top universities – but Les Ebdon, whom Vince Cable appointed as director of the Office for Fair Access, sees things differently. He recently  omplained about the ‘dreadful snobbery’ in some schools ‘about whether people go to university’. When I mention this to Gove, he suddenly goes quiet – in the way of a man moved beyond apoplexy. He walks over to his desk and picks up what he describes as ‘my new favourite book’: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which draws on hundreds of published and unpublished memoirs to show how the poor once educated themselves. What happened next was an unusual part of the interview, and perhaps worth reproducing in full.

‘Jonathan Rose [the author] who is a left wing academic, says I think it is more interesting to look at what the readers have done who lead or have led mainstream lives at work for Britain.  So he has got a quotation here from a Durham miner at the age of 14 who said that, this is 14, Like a Fennimore Cooper Indian I was tireless and silent once I started reading – Walter Scott, Charles Read, George Elliot, the Bronte’s, later on Hardy, Hugo, Dumas and scores of others.  Then came Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton and the line of poets generally.  I was hardly sixteen when I picked up James Thomson’s Seasons and Stead’s Penny Poets.  I wept for the shepherd who died in the snow.”  A 16 year old Durham miner.  I.R.P. Leader, James Booth Glazier claimed that, he was talking about what working people should read, “Bunion, Burns, Shelley, Byron, Aeschylus, Dante, Schiller and Les Miserables.”  Then … Dorothy Burnham lived her life in care, she quotes Keats, Tennyson and Arnold, “Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous.  I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written especially for me.  Although I spoke in my backstreet urchin accents of Les Belles Dames Sans Merci, yet in Keats’s poem I seem to sense some eternal ritual of eternal love and Tennyson’s Mort D’Arthur bowled me over.  The poets helped me escape the demands of communal living” – she’s in care – “which now at 13 were beginning to be intolerable to me.”‘

Gove was growing steadily more angry as he read. By this time, his fury was in a crescendo:

‘So you’ve got a 13 year old in care in 1928 who is reading Keats and Tennyson and some people say that it’s snobbery for children to go to university. It is snobbery to say that working class people cannot achieve in the same way as others and I’ve had it up to here with people saying oh don’t expect too much of them, these are high-falutin’ expectations.  In 1940 the average number of books that a working class boy would read is six every month, 72 a year, working class boys.  When I said we should have 50 books being read a year people said: that’s outrageous.  The truth is that we’ve lost the level of expectation that we used to have about what people were capable of achieving. They don’t have attitudes like that in East Asia or South Korea.  No one is going to say in South Korea, ‘what dreadful snobbery that you go to university’.  The last person who said it was dreadful snobbery to go to university was Rick Santorum in America and we regarded that as a view of the Rampithecan right, like the Scopes Trial all over again. The truth is that more people should go to elite universities and if you look at these schools where the expectations that it’s snobbish, don’t get above yourself – no!’

I had no idea how to follow up on this. Gove had been slowly reaching a crescendo: the crosser he gets, the more likely he is to use words like “Rampithecan” or refer to the Stopes Trial. So what flicked his anger switch? This, what the Republicans call the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has long been one of Gove’s ancient bugbears. Even while a  journalist he was saying comprehensive education was the ultimate “betrayal of the working class”. But most graduates today leave university without reading Hugo, Tennyson or Dumas – it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been badly educated.

But it could well be that Gove feels some empathy. He, of course, was once the 13-year-old adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger – with his nose doubtless buried deep in Burns, Milton and other books that might contain words like ‘ramapithecan’ and casually refer to the Scopes Trial. His parents, recognizing his talent, forswore holidays so they could afford to send him to private school. Oxford came next, then journalism. He was once my news editor at the Times, where unkind souls declared him too nice – ‘too polite’ – to get very far. He now has the reverse problem. He is tipped for the Tory leadership so regularly that he is running out of ways to rule himself out. (‘I know what it takes to be in that job,’ he told me when I last interviewed him. ‘And I just know that I don’t have it.’)

On winning elections

But when asked what the Tories must do to win in 2015, he comes forward with what sounds like a personal manifesto. There are Tories, he says, who are concerned with issues like whether ‘we need to have a better ground game in Worcestershire – and that’s great, I’m glad there are people like that. But my approach is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as possible.’

It’s true what Tony Blair said, he says: ‘The right policy is the right politics.’

On Europe

Gove says that being in politics has made him admire Blair more. ‘But with one exception: Europe. I have become more Eurosceptic as a result of having been in government.’

His enmity is born of practical experience, seeing how things like EU procurement law or the ECHR inhibit the capacity of an elected government to deliver on what people want’. And if an ‘in-or-out’ referendum were held tomorrow, how would he vote? ‘It’s a secret ballot,’ he says with a grin.

I try various ways to tempt him into saying something about Europe, but none work. He says, in effect, that he does advise Cameron on this privately and doesn’t want to blow this relationship by talking about Europe on the record. Or, as he puts it,  ‘One of the great privileges of this job is the opportunity to share with him [Cameron] some thoughts from time to time. In that sense, I would never want to circumscribe by saying anything in public about how he should handle any of these issues.’

On Cameron

He will say only that he trusts Cameron, who ‘has the guile and the steel and above all the sense of what is in Britain’s interests’ to negotiate an answer to the European question. Gove heaps praise on Cameron in general, something I’ve heard him do at donors’ dinner parties.

‘There are some Tories who are influenced by their understanding of economics, or by their admiration for particular figures from our past. Some say they are in the Macmillanite tradition, for example. But David doesn’t need to do that: he is just instinctive. There are some who seek to rationalise their writing or their music, and others who just do it naturally. David is the Conservative equivalent of a flair player, someone whose talent is natural.’

On Ed Miliband

But Gove is almost as nice about Ed Miliband.

‘I have a slightly unconventional view on Ed Miliband which is the view that Charles Moore has,’ he says. Watching Andrew Marr show reminded him that ‘David Miliband is actually a chillier figure’.

‘Ed has a warmth about him and a sense of humour, which means I find it difficult to be harsh about him. He’s a nice person, and in politics for the right reasons. I think there is more there and the other thing is I think his politics are very interesting, in that I think that he’s original.  Not a one-off, but one of the reasons that he won Labour’s leadership tace is because he genuinely said: ‘I want to transcend Blair and Brown.’ He had a view, and it is now becoming clear what that view is.’

But Miliband’s recent embrace of Disraeli, Gove says, is revealing.

 ‘In Disraeli, he chose someone as a hero who was a reactionary in the 1870s and a reactionary in the 1840s. In the same way as Disraeli romanticised the past, so does Ed Miliband. He romanticises the Crosland model of comprehensives and the Attlee era of austerity… There’s not that sense of inevitability in Ed’s onward victory and there’s not a sense that, notwithstanding the intellectually fascinating argument that he’s trying to run about Labour and social solidarity, you don’t get the sense that there is any Labour policy that is put forward where you think they’ve stolen a march on the government or they’ve helped to define the future.’

Gove’s ‘holiday romance’ with Laws

Gove has more kind words for the Liberal Democrats, with whom he enjoys governing. I ask if, come the election, he will be uncomfortable with the idea of Conservatives in Somerset trying to bring down his deputy, David Laws.

We’re not thinking about the election. If we did, then that might lead to both of us having to face something difficult. So, rather like in a holiday romance, you enjoy it. If you’re getting on well, then you live in the moment and have as good a time as possible.’

And at the end of the coalition?

‘Obviously, if you love someone, set them free. But at the moment I’m living in the moment – without thinking ahead.’

The ‘Stop Boris’ Hunger Games

I ask him to think ahead to the next Tory leadership race: which of his two young, ambitious deputies would be best to challenge Boris? Matt Hancock or Liz Truss?  “I don’t think either of them would want to challenge Boris because Boris has said that he doesn’t want to be an MP again. Boris may run for a third term [as Mayor], which I have suggested to him he should.

But if Boris did run? ‘You are almost inviting me to choose Hunger Games-style,’ he says. So he does. Truss, he says, is – like Thatcher – a working mother, so she “has had a tougher road than I have, and therefore my admiration for her is proportionately greater. But Matt is a human dynamo as well. He is helping the Prime Minister for PMQs, helping the Chancellor as he always has, serving two masters and me and Vince and I think both of us, I certainly think he is a brilliant minister.

He doesn’t say it, but this means Hancock is working for four masters. But Gove then tells me I have missed out a minister in the ‘Taking On Boris’ Hunger Game.

‘Ed Timpson could outpace either of them… he won the hearts of everyone here when we had our Department for Education’s Got Talent contest last Thursday where he sang Wild Thing by the Troggs with all the appropriate gestures and people were swooning everywhere, so charisma?  He’s got it.’

Gove’s Holidays, Catholicism

He is about to take his first ever winter holiday abroad, taking his family to a ski resort in Colorado. They’ll all be going to church on Christmas Day. When I ask about rumours that he may convert to Catholicism, he laughs loudly.”I think that politicians should never talk about their own religious faith.’ And rumours that he is selling his London flat, thus disbanding the Cameroon Notting Hill clan, are unfounded. He put his London house on the market, he says, ”just to test the water’, and admits he is ‘not keen to move’.

And taking the axe to the Department of Education

He may, however, want to move the Department of Education.

‘By the end of this parliament, we’ll have been able to reduce numbers in the department by more than a quarter.’ And the office itself?’ It’s a very handsome building, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a school on the first and ground floor,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of other government buildings that we can move to.’

So head teachers will soon have the power to poach, hire and fire. And Gove will have taken charge of Europe’s largest school bureaucracy, unclenched its fist, stripped away many of its powers, evicted its staff, then opened a free school in its old HQ as if to make a point. Quite an achievement for a first-time minister. No wonder so many in Westminster are wondering what he will do as a follow-up.

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