One of the best political speeches by a senior practising politician that I can recall was delivered by Michael Gove at Ditchley Park on Saturday evening. I should acknowledge that he did make favourable mention of my book The Road to Somewhere and its analysis of the value divides that have been driving much western politics in recent years, so I am not completely neutral, but this speech should be regarded as the definitive death-knell for Left-Right spectrum thinking in modern politics.
Here is a leading Tory politician, despised by the Left and leading a government routinely described as nativist/xenophobic and run by entitled, privileged men with no interest in the experience of ordinary people. And yet he says his “driving mission in politics, is to make opportunity more equal.” The model politician he praises is FDR, America’s most Left-wing president who for a few decades turned the US into something more like a European social democracy. Large passages of the speech could easily have been written by a centre-Left politician. For example:
None of this is should be surprising either from Gove himself, the radical reformer, or from the Tory party as a whole which took a social democratic turn under Theresa May and has gone even further with the current levelling up and let-spending-rip agendas. Yet here is one of the paradoxes of British politics: it has become a tired old cliché to declare that Left v Right is dead and yet there they still are, trundling along embedded as ever in our political minds.
Why is this? In part because the mainstream Left has been so focused on framing Brexit as a lurch to the Right (even far-Right) and also because it needs an idea of Tory uncaring, free-market dogma to sustain its own righteousness; that the onward march of Tory leftism has been scarcely noted in the liberal media. Meanwhile the more Conservative-friendly media is still not sure what to make of the bonfire of old free market dogmas. The result is that too few people want to see the end of Left v Right.
The meat of the speech was actually the machinery of government/Dominic Cummings agenda which describes our supposedly Rolls-Royce senior civil service as more like a Trabant-like impediment to the goals stated above: the lack of mathematical and data skills at the top, the damaging generalist obsession with shifting people around, and the well-known delivery failures and buck-passing. This will be familiar to anyone who has read the Cummings blog or followed the debate on reforming the machine. Gove, who has the advantage of experience in five different departments, also wants the people running the machine to be less southern, less middle class and less reliant on social science qualifications.
All of this seems an eminently sensible sort of radicalism, and when combined with Brexit and a greater respect for the somewhat socially conservative values of many of those who do not climb the cognitive meritocracy ladder, it could be said to represent the hidden majority in rich democracies — social democratic in economics and a bit to the Right on cultural issues.
The trouble is that the broader political and administrative class which has seen a surprising amount of ideological and even personnel continuity all the way from John Major, via Blair/Brown and Cameron/Osborne, to Theresa May, is deeply out of sympathy with the new centre defined by Johnson/Gove/Cummings. As Gove points out: “Almost every arm of Government, and those with powerful voices within it, seemed estranged from the majority in 2016.”
The majority at last has a Government that broadly represents its views but it is one of the least experienced cabinets of recent times and with very few people getting behind it at the top of the bureaucracy. Gove describes a popular and radical programme, but are there enough radicals to make it a reality?