Editor’s Note: In the April 21 issue of National Review, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger titled “Our Man in London: A visit with Michael Gove, Britain’s education minister.” This week in his Impromptus, Nordlinger is expanding that piece, and that visit, into a series.
An immigration officer at Heathrow Airport asks why I have come to the United Kingdom. I say I’ve come to do some work. He then asks about my job, and I answer. He further asks me what my particular assignment in London is. I’m going to interview a government minister, I say. “Which minister?” he asks. “Michael Gove,” I respond.
He scratches his head. “You work for an American magazine, and you’re going to interview our education minister? My guess is, most Americans don’t know who our prime minister is.”
True — most Americans could not identify the PM as David Cameron. Fewer could identify Gove as the education minister. But serious conservatives are apt to know who Gove is. When he was first elected to Parliament in 2005, I wrote a piece about him in National Review. His election, I said, “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.”
He has been that, yes. Since the Conservative party took power in 2010, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he has been at the helm of the Education Department. He has performed with boldness, even audacity, thrilling conservatives at home and abroad, and infuriating the Left (as well as disquieting some moderates).
A little biography: Gove was born in 1967. He is “the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger,” to quote the handy media line about him. A “scholarship boy,” he attended Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, whose motto (translated from Latin) is “Be the Best You Can Be.” He proceeded to Oxford.
For many years, he worked for the Times — London’s, of course, not New York’s — as an editor and columnist. He co-founded Britain’s blue-chip conservative think tank, Policy Exchange. And then he decided to practice politics and policy, in addition to writing and talking about them.
He is known as the “radical” of Cameron’s cabinet, conducting a “revolution” in education. What he has done is confront the Blob head-on. “Blob,” you may remember, is the coinage of William J. Bennett, one of President Reagan’s education secretaries. It means the education establishment — the unions, the grad schools, the bureaucrats, etc. “Blob” is used here in Britain, too. Gove has raised standards, rewritten the national curriculum, allowed for innovation. He has thrown virtually the whole conservative playbook at the country.
Some of his moves are, in part, symbolic. In 2011, he sent a King James Bible — a facsimile of the original — to every school in the land. It was the 400th anniversary of this book, and Gove did not let the moment pass. He described the King James Bible as “precious and unique,” and said, “I want all pupils, of all faiths and none, to have the opportunity to understand its place in our history, and its significant influence on our language and democracy.” The Bibles were paid for entirely by private donations.
He has made news outside his portfolio. When Parliament voted to forbid military action in Syria, he shouted at cheering MPs, “You’re a disgrace!” He explained later, “. . . there were Labour MPs cheering as though it were a football match and they’d just won, and at the same time on the news we were hearing about an attack on a school in Syria. The death toll there was rising and the incongruity of Labour MPs celebrating as children had been killed by a ruthless dictator got to me . . .”
Gove is an exceptionally good performer on television, and the government makes use of him. Recently, he was sparring with Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader. She was saying that the government was habitually getting rid of female officials and replacing them with men. “What is your problem in your government with women? It’s like raining men in the Tory party.” Gove answered, “We don’t have a problem with women in the Tory party: We made one prime minister, and she did a fantastic job. And I know that you were opposing everything she was doing at the time, Harriet, but . . .”
(I was surprised at Harman’s pop-cultural allusion: “It’s Raining Men” was a hit song from a long time ago, and I didn’t know anyone in Britain had heard it.)
In the lobby of the Education Department, here in Great Smith Street, there is a mission statement, articulated by Gove: “Our vision is a highly-educated society in which opportunity is more equal for children and young people no matter what their background or family circumstances.”
In my 2005 piece about him, I wrote,
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.)
Sitting with Gove in his ministerial office, I ask about his experience of politics — now almost ten years long. Surely he knows more about politics now than he did when he was a journalist, right? Oh, yes. “Funnily enough, I just saw on the Internet a new edition of Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks. One of the points that he makes is, there is practical knowledge, which is very difficult to codify, and which comes only from doing.” You can observe or read or interview all you want — but, in some areas, there is no substitute for doing.
“I mean, the very first time I sat at the cabinet table, I looked around it and thought, ‘Well, there’s Ken Clarke, and he’s a cabinet minister, and there’s Vince Cable, and he looks like a cabinet minister,’ and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I had this very powerful sense, which returns regularly, of impostor syndrome.”
(Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative, has been a cabinet minister on and off since the 1980s. Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, is now the secretary for business.)
Gove cites a friend and colleague of his who “put it very well, in a different context, when he said that sometimes you think, ‘When are the grown-ups going to turn up?’ And then you realize, you are the grown-ups in the room. That in itself is slightly bracing.”
The education minister has learned any number of things, including this: “One of the problems of politics is that, on those occasions when you say yes to a particular interest group, they pocket that concession, you’re a hero for a day, and then they find their new demand on you, and for all the interest groups to which you say no, you’re a villain forever.” A colleague was saying something to him this very day: “In politics as in life, but in politics in particular, friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.”
Gove has a few — more than a few. There is hatred spilled at him all the time, in addition to admiration. How does the hatred feel? Can he simply slough it off? “It must have an effect on me, more profound than I realize,” says Gove. So, he reads the criticism, hears it? “Yes, and it is undoubtedly the case that I have developed a thicker skin as a result of doing this job. In a way, you expect [the criticism or hatred] from certain quarters, and so, it’s not that you wear it as a badge of pride — ‘These people hate me, therefore I must be doing something right’ — but it matters less. The worst thing is when there are people who you think should support you, and who are on your side, and who for whatever reason . . .” — don’t.
Yes. That is very human, all too human.
I make the simple point that, in leaving his typewriter, or computer, Gove chose to be “in the arena.” (Said Roosevelt, in that speech, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds . . .”) Gove says that he, in fact, quoted TR’s speech in a speech of his own, “about risk-aversion in politics, particularly in public-service reform.”
My gaze is then directed to a portrait on the wall behind me — of TR.
I tell Gove, with a smile, that I think I like TR more as a writer and an orator than as a statesman. The “man in the arena” speech is certainly a rhetorical masterpiece. “He is brilliant and it is brilliant,” says Gove.
Okay, ladies and gents, that’s probably enough for one day. See you tomorrow for Part II of this series? Till then.