On May 5, Tony Blair won a third straight term as British prime minister, a first for a member of the Labour party. Immediately, this was interpreted to be a loss — such are the peculiarities of the U.K. system. Also on May 5, Michael Gove was elected to the House of Commons. This is cause for conservative rejoicing — no matter where one lives. Gove is one of Britain’s best political writers, and one of conservatism’s best writers, and he promises to be a strong politician. Is it too early to talk about him as prime minister, given that he’s 37 years old and was elected to Parliament about two seconds ago? Yes, but a little such talk has already dribbled out.
In America, it would be unusual for a writer to be elected to the legislature, or to anything else. We’re not apt to see George Will, Michael Kinsley, or Shelby Steele on Capitol Hill anytime soon — unless they are instructing congressmen. In Britain, however, writing and politics have long gone together. Sheridan was in Parliament. So were Burke, Macaulay, and scads of others. British politicians always seem to be writing, especially about other politicians. Shortly before he died, Roy Jenkins, the Labour figure, wrote a biography of Churchill. William Hague, the former Conservative leader, recently wrote a biography of Pitt the Younger.
In Parliament now are a number of former journalists — and some not so former — belonging to both parties. The Labourites include Martin Linton, who worked for several papers, concluding with the Guardian in 1997; Siôn Simon, who is still an associate editor of The Spectator (a magazine generally conservative, but wildly diverse, sometimes to the point of schizophrenia); and Gordon Brown himself, touted to be the next prime minister — he worked for Scottish TV.
Among the Conservatives is Paul Goodman, whose journalistic career culminated in the position of “comment editor” — British for op-ed editor — at the Daily Telegraph. It’s hard to stop scribbling altogether, though: In his time as Member of Parliament for Wycombe, Goodman has published a piece on the plays of Tom Stoppard.
Most famous, and notorious, of the British writer-parliamentarians is Boris Johnson, another Conservative, who is editor of The Spectator, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, a steady television presence, an author of books. (His latest is the novel Seventy-Two Virgins.) Hugely gifted, entertaining, and scandalous, Johnson has a mass following in Britain. There is a website devoted to him called BorisWatch. It has a blessing, “May Boris be with you,” and states, “Boris Johnson is, frankly, the mutt’s nads.” (Parse that, will you?)
Unsurprisingly, many people consider Johnson spread too thin, one of them being Michael Portillo, a former Tory big, and now a journalist (a political columnist and theater critic). (Incidentally, Michael Gove wrote a biography of him.) In the pages of the Sunday Times, Portillo wrote, “Johnson is talented at many things and cannot bear to sacrifice any of them.” They said the same about Leonard Bernstein. Johnson is no longer a frontbench Tory, however, having been remanded to the back bench last November. This followed “revelations about an extramarital affair,” as one newspaper put it. Approached by the press, Johnson said, “Bog off.” Shortly after, he wrote for himself, in a column headed, “Trust me, being sacked isn’t all bad.” It was typically sparkling — and hilarious — and ended, “My friends . . . there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Michael Gove will largely abandon his journalistic career, confining himself to a weekly column, in the Times. (That would be almost a full career, for some.) He says, “Boris is an exception to every rule, a phenomenon. He’s riding more horses than most of us could manage.”
Gove is a fairly rare thing in British political life: a Reaganite, even more than he is a Thatcherite, because he is deeply interested in social policy, and moral issues. Gove is also called a “neoconservative,” which is not the pleasantest word in Britain. Indeed, he published an essay in a collection called Neoconservatism, edited by Irwin Stelzer, of America’s Weekly Standard. That essay is titled “The Very British Roots of Neoconservatism and Its Lessons for British Conservatives.”
The new parliamentarian was born in Scotland, the son of a fishmonger (as newspapers like to note). He went to Oxford, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union (as Boris Johnson had been before him).
His development as a thinker may ring familiar — it has its U.S. parallel. “As a schoolboy,” he says, “I thought I was a socialist, because the author who most influenced me was Orwell.” Never mind that “Orwell has admirers on all sides, of course.” Then the Falklands War occurred, when Gove was about 15. “This was a defining moment for Britain, and for me, in a way.” The country was supposed to be in decline, and “Mrs. Thatcher was attacking that,” and demonstrating universal principles as well: such as that “dictators must not impose themselves willy-nilly on people and decide their futures.” After the Falklands, “Britain didn’t need to apologize for itself anymore,” and “it didn’t need to cringe,” either.
And then there was the miners’ strike, in the mid-1980s, “the last hurrah of organized labor as a movement”: “It made me realize that many people on the left who claimed to speak for the poor were more interested in fighting an ideological crusade than in achieving actual gains” for the ostensible objects of their concern.
Gove also notes that he admired certain writers, well before realizing that he was responding to a sort of conservatism. He liked Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene . . . and Jane Austen. “People caricature it, but Austen’s work was important to me, in that it recognizes the value of respecting ancestral wisdom. The fact that I responded to Austen predisposed me 20 years later to respond to Gertrude Himmelfarb,” the American historian and author of such books as The De-moralization of Society.
Finally, there was the Fall of the Wall, when “it seemed to me that conservative principles and insights had been triumphantly vindicated. The case for the free market, the Reagan-Thatcher attitude to the Soviet Union” — all of it. So that by the time he left Oxford, most of Gove’s positions had been established. “I was a Reagan-Thatcher fan, but with that residual streak of British Toryism, which would mean, in American terms, that there is a bit of Russell Kirk mixed in.” Gove says that his outlook “combines optimism about human potential with a recognition of the weaknesses in human society,” which demand bedrock institutions, primarily the family.
Gove rose quickly in journalism, holding several editorships at the Times, and writing all the while. He also appeared on many television and radio programs, including The Moral Maze, from BBC Radio Four. He describes this show to his American interviewer as “an ethical version of Crossfire.” With some brothers-in-arms, he founded a think tank, Policy Exchange, which bills itself as “promoting ideas and policies based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture.” He and his friends started the institute, he says, “because one of the problems of British conservatism is that we haven’t made the investment in the war of ideas that the American Right has.” The Policy Exchangers were much taken with the success of Mayor Giuliani in New York.
Unlike most American politicians — but like some judicial nominees (for example) — Gove has a lengthy, lengthy “paper trail,” as we would say. He has written three books, and hundreds of articles and essays. He has written on virtually every subject under the sun, with authority. He can write complexly, simply, scaldingly, sweetly, analytically, sweepingly. Of the countless pieces written about Terri Schiavo — the Florida woman who figured in the recent “right to die” case — Gove’s was one of the most eloquent. No matter what the subject, he is not afraid to stick his neck out.
He is unwavering in his support of the Iraq War, and of the general War on Terror. He has no truck whatever with anti-Americanism — an especially powerful essay is “Hatred of America: The Socialism of Fools” (a phrase traditionally applied to anti-Semitism). He is also a strong supporter — politically, morally — of Israel, which is an even lonelier thing to be in Britain than a strong supporter of George W. Bush. He says that America and Israel are “standing rebukes to the Left,” for all they represent, and that, in defending them, one is “defending Western civilization overall.” We’ll see how that goes over in parliamentary debate.
Gove now represents Surrey Heath in Parliament, and his seat is considered a very safe one, for a Conservative. In former times, it was easier to do other jobs while serving in Parliament, because Parliament met mainly in the afternoons and evenings. But politics has become more of a full-time affair in Britain — which is to be regretted. As Gove says, “The ideal democratic system is one of citizen legislators,” who come together every now and then, to discuss and enact minimal legislation. “But it is in the nature of modern democracies that more and more is expected of elected representatives.”
Everyone acknowledges that Gove gave up a lot when he entered politics: He could well have been editor — editor-in-chief — of the Times. But Gove thought it vital to be “in the arena,” as the first Roosevelt said, not just spectating, even prominently. “If you spend a lot of time arguing that politics should move in a different direction,” he says, “you ought to take some responsibility for it. Instead of Monday-morning quarterbacking, you should do some actual quarterbacking.” (Gove is liberal with his Americanisms.) In a grand tradition, however, he will not stop writing: There’s that weekly column, yes, and he has contracted for a biography of Bolingbroke.
Watch him, when C-SPAN does Westminster, if you can. Failing that, one can always read him.
– This article first appeared in the June 6, 2005, issue of National Review.