A visit with Michael Gove, Britain’s education minister
London — 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 in these pages, “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.”
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 few biographical notes: 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 a distinguished school in Aberdeen whose motto (translated from Latin) is “Be the Best You Can Be.” Then he went 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.
Sitting with Gove in his 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.
Gove remembers the first time he sat at the cabinet table. He looked around it, saw some more seasoned members, and thought, “What am I doing here?” He says, “I had this very powerful sense, which returns regularly, of impostor syndrome.” He quotes a fellow minister, who says, “Sometimes you think, ‘When are the grown-ups going to turn up?’ And then you realize, you are the grown-ups in the room.” Says Gove, “That in itself is slightly bracing.”
He 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 earlier today: “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. Arrows from your opposition are one thing; arrows from those whose support you might expect are worse.
I make the simple point that, in leaving his typewriter, or computer, he chose to be “in the arena,” borrowing Theodore Roosevelt’s famous phrase: “It is not the critic who counts,” but rather “the man who is actually in the arena.” Gove says that he 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 a wall — of TR.
Some of us worry that you can never beat the Blob. You may push it back for a while, but it always returns, smothering. No reform ever sticks. Gove does not agree with this (which is reassuring) — but allows that “there are tides and cycles in politics.” He elaborates, “Sometimes the arguments for free enterprise win, sometimes the arguments for thrift win, sometimes the arguments for tax-and-spend seem to prevail.” There is a similar back-and-forth in education, he says.
Here is some advice for conservative reformers, courtesy of Gove: We should try not to let ourselves be painted as “stern, eat-your-spinach figures” — people who demand that the kids memorize their times tables and conjugate their Latin verbs (fruitful as those activities are). Instead, “I think we should say, ‘We’re the civil-rights crusaders’” — people who seek to ensure that kids have the kind of education that will allow them to rise. “Children may not inherit wealth, but they can certainly inherit the best that has been thought and said.”
With this last phrase — “best that has been thought and said” — Gove is echoing Matthew Arnold. And he is one who believes that any child can benefit from a sound and serious education, no matter his personal circumstances.
I tell Gove I’m going to ask him an Oprah-style question: Does his own background affect his view of education? “It must do,” he says. “But I’m wary of a simple equation between biography and views.” I tell him I suspect he’d have the same views if he had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He says, “I hope so. I mean, my views on education are more or less the same as David Cameron’s.” (The prime minister is not the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger.)
Eventually, we get to America — a country that Gove knows a lot about, and cares a lot about. I put it bluntly: “Are we going down the tubes?” “No!” “Are we ‘fundamentally transformed’?” “No!” “Is it curtains for us?” “No!” “Lights out?” “No!” He then says he would not criticize President Obama or his administration, as a member of a government allied to America. He does discuss America, however.
All through our history, he says, we Americans have asked ourselves, “Is this a period of decline?” This questioning began not long after the founding of the republic, he guesses. And he cites some later examples. He then says, “If you look at America now, yes, you have a fiscal problem — but then so do most developed countries. And America is the place where tomorrow happens. It’s the most innovative and exciting country in the world in terms of technological change and in terms of intellectual endeavor.”
Still? Yes, indeed. “Whose magazines and books do we want to read? American writing, whether it’s journalism or fiction or non-fiction, is culturally far more significant than any other nation’s. Technology is a given. America’s higher-
education institutions are the best educational institutions in the world.”
Then he mentions “the old Churchill cliché,” which goes, “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” Gove says, “There’s a moral sense that guides America’s leaders, which, for whatever reason, kicks in sooner or later. Even if you’ve got a bad president or a difficult time, it’s always the case that, when the crisis requires it, sooner or later America rises to the occasion.”
We then move to Israel — another country that Gove knows a lot about, and cares deeply about. I ask, “In our countries, the Western democracies, is hostility to Israel rising or lessening?” “Rising,” he says, quickly. He believes Israel will survive, but makes some unvarnished points. “For a lot of people on the left, Israel is incredibly subversive of their world outlook.” For example, “how can it be that, when we argue that the future is in transnational governance, this country, which is absolutely determined to be a 19th-century liberal nation-state, is so successful?”
He further says, “There is a buried anti-Semitism whereby people say, ‘Yes, of course, we’re perfectly happy to defend Jewish people, Jewish communities, the Jewish state, on our terms, so don’t you dare be so uppity, don’t you dare attempt to determine what your state will be like: We’ll tell you the basis on which you should live.’” This is how it was in ghetto days.
I say that, in my observation, there are people who like Jews when they’re weak and vulnerable, but not when they’re strong and armed. Gove says, “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”
He has much more to say, of course, on a range of subjects — but let’s finish back on the subject of Britain. He is going all out in this government, not twiddling his thumbs. He is “making a difference” (in that most earnest of phrases). Reagan used to say, “We’re not here to mark time.” Gove quotes an old truism: “The only certainty about office is that you’re going to lose it one day.” Gove will lose it one day — but, in the meantime, if you want an example of the conservative intellectual in action, look to London, to the education department here on Great Smith Street.