by Nicholas Harris
Monday, 22
August 2022
Profile
09:37

Farewell Michael Gove, almost a philosopher king

He was too cerebral for the real gore of politics
by Nicholas Harris

Before Michael Gove it was Ken Clarke. And before him, threading back through modern British history, there was Roy Jenkins, and Barbara Castle, and Anthony Crosland and RAB Butler. If, as he implied on Saturday, Michael Gove is stepping back from frontline politics for good, he will be ascending to a storied plane: the politician-intellectual-nearly-man.

British politics, especially since 1945, has had a particular fetish for this type. A salve to adversarial parliamentary hurly-burly, they garner rare cross-party respect for their intelligence, effectiveness and sense of reforming dynamism. And for a certain highbrow political constituency they satisfy the perennial hope that politics might be more rational and enlightened. Few politicians appear in the history books for attending to ministerial duties; these have a habit of upstaging the premiers they, in theory, served under. And rather than the robotic weirdness that infects too many over-exposed politicians, they somehow retain enough wit and human furniture (Clarke’s cigars, Castle’s coiffure) to make them knowable, and even likeable.

Gove was the closest we have had in a time of benighted public discourse and scant political talent. Turned away from the Conservative Research Department after university for being “insufficiently political”, like several of his predecessors in this tradition he instead became a writer, even producing books for a purpose other than embarrassing his future self. Politics came only after the cultivation of an intellectual and personal hinterland, vital for any politician who wishes to retain their integrity and their sanity in government.

In a political age which has largely belonged to the characterful populist agitator, Gove remains its most transformative minister (all the more impressive considering he never held a Great Office of State). The academy and free school programme has changed the material landscape of British education. And while not the face of Brexit, Gove was one of its chief architects. Beyond a reputation for eccentricity (and the Machiavellianism of his post-Brexit political manoeuvres), his standing remains high. Few contemporaries would merit the gush of his home newspaper The Times’s valedictory editorial: “a blend of High Tory principles and compassionate liberalism” who “championed the poor and the left behind” and “scorned inherited privilege”. Or, as the pub obituary might have it: “At least he got stuff done.”

But like those before him, for all the plaudits, Gove’s political life ends as a (noble) failure. Like Ken Clarke — and especially Roy Jenkins — he could never attain the highest office nor persuade his party to cohere around the vision he was offering. Too cerebral for the real gore of politics, something about these types doesn’t blend with the whiff of parliamentary cordite. Leadership is instead left to those with more crude but ultimately more robust political instincts.

Despite this, figures like Gove do perform a vital function. The notion of the philosopher-king is as old as politics itself, but amid the unpredictability of mass democracy, for some the hope will always be that a figure will emerge who can work the political machine under the guidance of genuine intellectual-ideological conviction. These also-rans are the closest we ever get to this dream, and their presence does sustain a flickering faith in the power and potential of politics.

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Judy Keiner
Judy Keiner
1 month ago

This is the third supposedly spontaneously independently written article I’ve read puffing up Gove as this supposedly towering political leader whose withdrawal from front line politics we must supposedly mourn. It has all the appearance of a PR lobbyist campaign of placed articles. Journalists of first rank don’t usually do this sort of sycophancy chorus, especially those whose forte in the last year has been vituperative onslaughts on Boris, branding him a liar and lazy incompetent. I used to be a fan of Gove till his action in his role of campaign manager of backstabbing Boris on the morning his campaign for the leadership was due to be launched— in order to put himself forward as leadership candidate. The worst act of political treachery in British politics I can recall. It directly gave us Theresa May as PM, one of the worst PMs ever, and came quite near to landing us with Corbyn as PM. It also showed that Gove’s vanity reduced his political insight to that of a flea. How on earth did he think the Tory Party would vote him into the role of PM after such an act of treachery? And how could any journalist of standing write such a puff piece in the light of the defining action of his career?

Last edited 1 month ago by Judy Keiner
ralph bell
ralph bell
1 month ago
Reply to  Judy Keiner

He was spot on about Boris then.
The electorate and Tory Members consistently make the wrong decision on leaders over the past 30 years.
Just one mess after another!

Andy Higgs
Andy Higgs
1 month ago

Whilst I always respected him for his intellectual heft, he never really knew what Brexit was for and so failed to chart any clear path for the ‘independent’ Britain he delivered.
Having worked extremely closely with BJ in the referendum campaign, he stabbed Johnson in the back in 2016 because he said he wasn’t fit for high office, . Pity he lost the courage of his convictions.
Now the UK is entering a period of REAL turmoil, partially related to exiting the EU on such awful terms, he’s leaving the battlefield; I’d call that starting a war and deserting in the face of the enemy.
Frankly, he ain’t worth the eulogy.

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Andy Higgs

in ‘leaving the battlefield’ Gove is merely accepting the inevitable – that Truss’s animosity towards him means it’s certain he won’t be in her Cabinet. That’s not desertion.
Of course, May did the same until she recognised that he was the only really competent minister about and brought him back into government. Given the short time Truss is likely to be in office, his chances of returning are slim.
And finally, Gove was 100% correct about Johnson’s suitability to be PM. Too bad the Tory party didn’t heed him in 2016 and again in 2019.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Andy Higgs

 the UK is entering a period of REAL turmoil, partially related to exiting the EU on such awful terms

What does this mean?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

It means it was written by a Remainer.

Richard Warren
Richard Warren
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Surely it was written by Boris Johnson and Lord Frost? Its not panned out perfectly yet but I think we in the Leave camp need to own the project now and stop making excuses, otherwise we risk becoming like all the loony left who say “communism can work, its just not been implemented properly yet”.

Gary Dakin
Gary Dakin
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Woe, woe, thrice woe – the end is near!? Probably more for Germany than the UK since Germany is much more reliant on Russian gas than the UK which only accounts for 3% of our energy mix.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Gary Dakin

Strikes me that Europe’s economy is likely to be so undermined by its energy woes that the UK will be well served by extending its range of trading relationships outside of the continent.

Bill Gilmour
Bill Gilmour
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

The problem is, it’s not where it comes from. It’s what it costs. As the price is set internationally, the cost will be the same in London and Berlin. The damage will be the same wherever you are.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Bill Gilmour

Thanks Bill.
That is certainly true for prices but is it true for availability/ security do you know? Is not Germany more likely to find itself without any supplies than Britain as it has limited ways to get gas to the country at any price, including LNG given the lack of re-gassifiers?

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Gary Dakin

Can you image the political hell in the Fatherland when Germans must carry their human waste and garbage in winter storms to community disposal sites because piples are frozen?

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
1 month ago

He was the one who signed off on awarding Rotherham £1.8million, and the title of “Children’s Capital of Culture”.
He makes me sick.

jon smith
jon smith
1 month ago

Feels like a bit of a puff piece.
He was once a formidable operator and reformer but has never been the same since he went a bit Macbeth and stabbed Boris in the back.
Some of the questionable positions he’s taken post 2017, his private life, disco weirdness etc. suggest someone who is not in a good place and should have taken (at least) a sabbatical years ago.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 month ago

Actually, and sadly, it’s a bit simpler than that – he just looks a bit weird.

Gary Dakin
Gary Dakin
1 month ago
Reply to  David Simpson

He not only looks a bit weird, he sounds a bit weird – like C3PO trying to sound less robotic – and he walks and runs a bit weird too.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 month ago

“And rather than the robotic weirdness that infects too many over-exposed politicians”… Hello? Robotically weird is Gove in a nutshell. I cannot be the only person who wonders why people write of his ‘intellectual’ qualities. He got a 2:1 in English Lit? Hasn’t got it, doesn’t know what it is he hasn’t got so can’t recognise it in others and backs the wrong donkeys. Next!

B Luck
B Luck
1 month ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

He got a 2:1 in English Lit

So? W.H. Auden got a third.

Julian Lewis
Julian Lewis
1 month ago

Gove oversaw the degradation of the English state education system. Free schools are at best a vanity project, at worst enable cranks with non education agendas to run schools. There is nothing good to be said about acadmies. They permit bad management to thrive and are prey to profiteering and croneyism. They were a misguided prescription for a problem that didn’t exist. Gove’s failure to rein in Ofsted’s managerial excesses, and his championing of the new A levels, whose content and structure are unfit for 21st century, have created a perfect storm of work overload for teachers, breakdown of pedagogy into paint by numbers, de professionalisation of teachers and stultifying, inappropriate programmes of study for children. What was his background? Journalism. What was he? A politician. The last decade has taught us everything we need to know about the morality and probity of these two fields. He understood nothing about education, and screwed it over. I’m in senior leadership in a primary school in Wales, where education is devolved, thank God. My brother and sister-in-law are in middle management in English secondary academies. My wife was until recently in middle management in a private secondary in England. I think I’m pretty clued up about the sector. Also lifelong Conservative voter in general elections until 2019, so not taking party political potshots here. The only thing I’ll agree on with Gove is that Johnson was unfit to be PM (hence the change in my voting). As Education Secretary Gove was a disaster, and nothing else he did in other posts suggested he was anything other than a mediocrity with an inflated sense of his own importance. Let’s hope the suspicion he is a busted flush is correct. The sooner he’s gone the better.

Last edited 1 month ago by Julian Lewis
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Lewis

Gove knew what soundbites about the state education system would sound good to others who like Gove had gone to private schools and knew nothing about state education.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Lewis

Perhaps, Julian, being in Wales, you were unaware of the sheer awfulness of many English education authorities. Breaking their grip was indeed a great achievement by Gove, as Mrs D (30 years teaching in the most challenging schools, finishing as an SLT member) will testify.
Getting back to the article, Gove did indeed go a bit tonto after the referendum.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago

Gove’s capacity for treachery resembles that of Brutus who despatched Julius Caesar with a knife between the shoulder blades.

But it is Caesar who continues to march through history, not Brutus.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

You’re not comparing Boris to Caesar?
It’s like comparing comparing Sturgeon to William Wallace.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

Comparing that gnome clerk to Brutus is akin to comparing David Beckham to Lord Sumption…

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

I hope this has no effect on his dance moves at the raves. The man totally rocks.Why wasn’t that mentioned?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Thou jesteth, surely? The man is walking testament to the jumped up line manager class who dominate politics… He might have made a passable butler or valet….

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
1 month ago

Intellectual, or not, i tend to think not, he leaves government with the ticking time bomb that is the White Paper on Landlord and Tenant legislation. It will decimate the private rental sector if the new PM doesn’t scrap it.

Will Will
Will Will
1 month ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

We bought a flat so we could look after our sick parents in their final years and did look after them at considerable direct and indirect opportunity cost to ourselves. We agreed once the last parent died we would sell it or let it if selling didn’t make financial sense. We sold it at a loss because of the Tories lunatic policies.As far as I am concerned the Tories are a complete bunch of unos having got just about everything wrong over the last 12 years. To be frank, they have been effin useless for the last three decades. They bear a huge and IMO disproportionate amount of responsibility for the accelerating chaos in this country as a result of the policies they have both pursued and acquiesced in.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill W
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

just look at the great wealth creators and business builders of the world? They are not and have not been ” intellectuals”..Why do so many people on this medium appear to use this criteria… and then somehow ignore the fact that Sunak is an intellectual who has also made a fortune and does not NEED politics for a living?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

What has Gove achieved? Academies were first introduced by Labour in the 2000s. Gove made a lot of noise about ‘fighting the blob’ that sounded good to right-wingers who had been educated at private schools. The lasting consequences of his time in charge of education are negligible. His ridiculous suggestion that social security payments should be pumped into the housing market showed just how far off the ball he is. He is a total irrelevance. In contrast Ken Clarke bequeathed Labour a fully functioning and firing economy in 1997. Roy Jenkins was also a successful Chancellor, stabilising Britain after currency devaluation. Barbara Castle did her best to pre-empt the industrial strife that destroyed Labour in the 1970s. Anthony Crosland and RAB Butler were the intellectual giants that reconciled their parties to the idea of a mixed economy.

Will Will
Will Will
1 month ago

Gove never struck me as particularly brilliant, simply loquacious. He studied English at Oxford and got a 2:1. My flatmate at Oxford in the 80s was a Scholar bought lots of books, never read them (only the Penguin introductions), never lifted a finger, went metaphorically AWOL in the run up to Finals, and still got a 2:1. His mother was furious he didn’t get a First.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Will Will

The vast majority of those who come down from Oxford, become jobsworth managers: attendence is not akin to some Superman telephone box that turner Clark Kent into Superman….