Gove in the Arena, Part II

Michael Gove


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. For Part I, go here.

I ask Michael Gove something like this: “How can we conservatives and classical liberals win elections? It’s so hard to run against people offering free stuff, or who blame the wealthy and successful for other people’s problems. How do we persuade voters? In short, how do we beat the socialists?”

Gove first says that he is “not an expert.” Then he answers as follows — I will paraphrase (but closely):

“Tocqueville pointed out — though he wasn’t the first — that, in a democratic system, there’s always a tendency to gravitate to the guy who offers free stuff, or who is prepared to pander to achieve power. But I have more faith in human nature, in that people do want to think better of themselves, people do want to take control of their own lives and make an enterprise of their own existence. People do recognize that being dependent on others is debilitating, and people also have a low tolerance for lead-swingers and others who seem to be taking advantage of their own hard work.”

Here, I ought to make a language note: A “lead-swinger,” in British English, means “idler,” “slacker,” “malingerer.” (I never knew that.)

Gove continues, “I think the way to win the argument, however, is not just to rely on people’s desire to improve their own lives, and their impatience with those who are not being similarly strenuous, but to make the point that conservative ideas are the best way of achieving the sorts of goals that progressives profess to believe in. So, for example, the best way of helping poor children to do better in life is to do everything possible to support their being raised in a loving family, and if that means, for example, making it easier for couples to adopt children who are in abusive or neglectful homes, that is something that should be done. . . .

“It also means critically that, when children are at school, teaching them in what you or I would recognize as a traditional way is the best means of giving them the tools by which they can succeed in life.”

I ask, “Are people hungry for this? For these tools, these good things in life? Do you sense this hunger?” Yes, he says. “I think there’s a greater appreciation for seriousness than we sometimes allow.”

Gove mentions a book called “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes,” by Jonathan Rose. The author, says Gove, “makes the point that, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a huge appetite for intellectual seriousness” among these “classes.” I say, “Oh, yes: the classic coal-smudged book in a workers’ library.” Exactly, says Gove.

Now, “one can’t romanticize it,” he continues. “But there are two things: One, what’s wrong with romanticizing it? That’s part of politics. Showing people a better future for themselves, appealing to their better angels. And the second thing” — is this:

Gove tells me about a woman named Jade Goody, who became a huge “reality TV” star in Britain. She was “a poster girl for ignorance,” someone “at whom you’d gawk,” an exhibit in a “modern-day Bedlam.” She was the “anti-Kardashian,” not a figure of glamour, but of the opposite. Anyway, she became quite rich — and “she had a decision to make about what to do about her wealth, for her two children.”

She decided not to give them condos or castles or cash for their amusement. “She put the money into a trust explicitly for their private-school education,” says Gove. “Her belief was, if her sons had the best possible education, and she gave them that start in life, that was the thing which was most likely to lead them to prosper.”

Jade Goody died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 27.

“So, someone who had been seen as the absolute epitome of ignorance, trashiness, and superficiality was smart enough to know, ‘I’ll use this, and hand on to my children something really powerful and enriching: the best school education money can buy.’”

(Let me note that, when Brits say “school,” they mean pre-university.)


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