Gove in the Arena, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

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 Impromptus, Nordlinger has expanded that piece, and that visit, into a series. Parts I-III are here, here, and here. The series concludes today.

Gove did something he did not have to do; he waded into a debate he did not have to wade into. In fact, he stirred a debate that had not really been there.

For the Daily Mail, he wrote a column about World War I, the centenary of whose beginning is marked this summer. That column was titled “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Gove wrote,

The Government wants to give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents, which is why we are organising visits to the battlefields of the Western Front.

The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best. But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict.

He continued,

Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles — a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.

Yes. There was a furious reaction to Gove’s piece — white-hot — which he discusses with me: “I was slightly taken aback by the reaction, and probably shouldn’t have gotten involved, but the strength of the reaction to what I said, and the depiction of my view, twisting it a bit, almost made my point for me: There I was, putting forward the suggestion that a view that was dominant didn’t like being challenged, and then the dominant view that didn’t like being challenged hit back. I wanted there to be some sort of balance in the debate.”

I myself was raised with the “dominant view,” as Gove calls it — I sometimes call it the “senseless-slaughter school”: World War I was nothing but a senseless slaughter, with no right side or wrong side. It was just comfortable old men sending young men, in the bloom of their lives, to a ghastly death, for no reason.

That is a view I am perfectly willing to listen to, and explore. But there are other views, too (and ones that do not let Germany off the hook).

The general view of the war, as Gove points out, has been shaped by the “war poets”: Owen, Sassoon, et al. He tells me about the Ph.D. research of Martin Stephen, now the headmaster of the St. Paul’s School, here in London. Stephen spoke to First War veterans, and, as Gove puts it, “most of them thought the war poets were posh, poncy figures” whose family background and other characteristics “made them utterly unrepresentative of the guys in the trenches. They felt, ‘These people don’t speak for me.’”

(“Poncy” is a British term for “pretentious,” “affected.”)

Gove does not have a fixed or ideological view of the war: its causes, its worth. But he does not like the debate dominated by one side, which is to say, he does not like no debate.

There are conservatives in America who say, “We suffer from Reagan nostalgia, which is debilitating.” In Britain, there are those who say the same about Thatcher nostalgia. What does Gove say?

“There’s always going to be nostalgia, and it’s understandable.” (As often in this series, I am paraphrasing, but closely.) “We’re always going to think we live in an age of men and that the age of gods and heroes has passed. But a proper historical analysis can help us. If you properly understand the challenges Reagan faced and the appropriateness of his response to that time, that enables you to draw appropriate lessons now. If you look back and airbrush out of the record the contradictions and complexities of the individual, and turn him into a plaster saint, that’s problematic.”

Of Reagan and Thatcher both, Gove says this: “In the lessons of their success, you have to be aware of the particular circumstances of the time.”

Thatcher “had a clear set of principles that guided her, but she was tactically prepared until the very end to concede in order to move on. She never made the perfect the enemy of the good.” Reagan, too, had a clear set of principles, and “he also recognized, through experience, intuition, or intellect, that you needed to bring together the maximum number of people who could broadly support your program.”

Bush 43, says Gove, “recognized how there were shifts in the demographics of America, which he was in a position to exploit.” Different communities could “see him as their guy.” Gove continues, “For conservatives now, part of the challenge is to think, What is the emerging coalition which, without compromising on essential principle, you can bring together? I ask respectfully, and as one looking from the outside, Have Republicans failed to appreciate the extent to which new Americans from a variety of immigrant communities are amenable to their message?”

(My answer is yes, they have failed to appreciate this.) (There is an old movie line: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” What we’ve got here is failure to appreciate.)

I tell Gove that, looking at him from New York, my impression is, he’s going all-out, pedal to the metal, till the day he leaves office. He doesn’t know how much time he has, so he’s doing everything possible, every day, like there’s no tomorrow. This is his time in government. Any moment, he could be back at his typewriter — back at his computer — merely scribblin’ like me.

Gove says yes, my impression is correct. “As the saying goes, the only certainty about office is that you’re going to lose it one day. Therefore, you’ve got to make sure that while you’re there, you make a difference. Sometimes making a difference is making sure that bad guys don’t do bad things. And sometimes making a difference is holding the line until someone better can come along. But wherever possible, it’s better if you play offense, making arguments, taking ground, seeking to appeal to the best in human nature, in order to advance what it is that you believe in. And then, at the end, you don’t have the sense of regret that comes from thinking, ‘If only.’”

He adds this, however: “In any political movement, or party, or cabinet, you have to have some people who are instinctively cautious. This is especially important in a conservative party. We are rightly wary of governmental hyperactivity or political hyperactivity.” Still, he admires people who use their slot or time to contribute something daring or important.

When he was a journalist — ten years ago, now — I read Gove regularly. I miss this, much as I would prefer him in government. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has a regular column (in the Telegraph). Why not the secretary of education? “Because he’s more talented than I am,” the secretary says.

That is typical of Gove. (He and Johnson are friendly rivals, if press accounts are to be trusted. Maybe less-than-friendly rivals, I don’t know.) Gove further says, “I could theoretically write, but the point is, the mayor heads his administration, and I’m a member of a team, as it were, so he has the freedom to maneuver: If he wants to write, he absolutely can.”

Toward the end of our time together, here at the Education Department on Great Smith Street, I ask, “Can conservatives elsewhere draw lessons from your experience? Follow your example?” He says — again, this is pure Gove — “Just as it’s too soon to pass judgment on the Iraq War, it’s too soon to pass judgment on my tenure here. I might end up being viewed as having had a disastrous effect on English education, as someone who overplayed his hand politically, and people might look back and say, ‘This is an object lesson in how not to hold office.’”

I doubt it.