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.
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.”