He was too cerebral for the real gore of politics
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.
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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.