Gove signals the end of the Left-Right divide
The minister's latest speech was radical — but can he deliver it?
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:
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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?
‘improving exam performance for children from under-performing ethnic minorities’
The white working-class, perhaps?
Just what I was going to add. The white working class have the lowest school performance, and lowest aspirations of the lot. They have been neglected and patronised for too long.
And of course none of those in the protected characteristic groups can rail against it – because it is so obviously the ethical and moral think to do.
There is a golden opportunity like never before to change our system. I hope that the majority of voters/tax payers and those myself included beyond their sell by date will intuitively know that change must happen if we are to develop a state that is more representative of the country as a whole.
Change is not difficult, it is only made so by those who do not want it. Brexit is a prime example.
We can all beat our breasts and complain about weak governments even shout at the BBC but all, as we know, to no avail and to make it worse we can generally say why. But… what we must have is that dying band of people despised by committee’s called doer’s. Step forward ,now is your chance to actually do something and do it now.
Oh, that it were so easy! In essence your point is correct in that change happens on the back of determined and focused people. The ‘doers’. With a credible plan, a defined endpoint and a lot of stamina.
But it is very seldom (ever?) as straightforward as you suggest. Changing how we do things as a society is a long process. Just ask the Left who’ve been at this for decades. It really is a Long March.
I don’t think it’s easy, but what can dispel the inertia of our burdensome system? Starting with a positive attitude would be a quantum leap. Add people in job’s on merit and your on your way. A Long March… probably.
Ever tried changing an organisation that didn’t want to change? The state is not the voters/tax payers and its the state that needs to change.
Kind words butter no parsnips.
There is in reality a huge gulf between what Michael Gove proposes and the actions of the government of which he is one of the most influential members.
The aspirations of this speech are all well and good but are certainly not the aspirations of the vast majority of Tory supporters.
Michael Gove has in the past put forward similar ideas but on all occasions failed to deliver or gone into to denial. Whether this instance is sincere or just another piece of political chicanery we will see.
One lives in hope, but there is little sign of the current government being “a bit to the Right on cultural issues”; on the contrary it appears to be still to the left of even Tony Blair on such issues. Meanwhile, copying FDR is very worrying, and certainly a move to the Left; though deficit spending may have helped recovery, Roosevelt delayed recovery from the Great Depression by increased regulation, price fixing, and diversion from private investment to government pet projects. He is not a model fo follow.
Coming from the traditional left, I see hope in Gove. What I find so hard about the Left/Right divide is how the Left have taken ownership of the “Green” agenda on climate change. Since the destruction of the natural environment will damage us all in the near future, why aren’t conservative politicians shouting for change as loud as Greta Thunberg? Why is Extinction Rebellion so bedecked with left-wing tropes when its message is of universal importance?
UK proportion of world’s manmade CO2 OUTPUT is negligible at one-third of 1%.
As a nation, we are near bankrupt.
A waste of resources to join the Green blob, since there is nothing we could or should do to influence the climate.
(Setting a “good example” would be futile)
Richer nations drive technological improvement. A capitalist solution to climate change is unlikely to come from a poor country, it’ll have to be proved in a richer country first. If we crack e.g. wave power, we’ll bag ourselves a load of money and stop being so reliant on fuel producing countries, countries that aren’t forced by economic necessity to pander to the middle class desire for democracy.
Whilst I agree with you regarding anthropogenic climate change pseudo science, there are a lot of real environmental issues we really do need to tackle urgently. Sadly these get overshadowed by the obsession with plant food emissions.
Energy deficit and greenness will bankrupt UK
Conservative Environmental Network
Also Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy.
The Conservative Party approach is gradualism not maximalism since the latter will upend co2 emissions as a massive spurt with unknown consequences.
In this respect, de-carbonisation along with our ecological strategy
is part of a careful precautionary approach bearing in mind that our infrastructural capacity needs increasing to accommodate the population growth of the last few decades.
State bashing has been around since states were invented. Would be more interested in hearing about what ‘ownership’ would involve in Gove’s radically reformed Capitalism. Refreshing though, to witness that he acknowledges it’s existence.
It would be a genuine form of levelling up if Standard English could be taught in schools as a Lingua Franca. This does not mean eliminating regional inflections as these can be enriching (as with Wilfred Pickles as newsreader). What I mean is clear communication and the accompanying social skills.
This morning I tried to listen to the new Times Radio station online but tuned into Times Radio Malawi instead. I was impressed by the elegance of the English used on the station and how favourably it compares with the exaggeratedly demotic, ‘chatty’ tones of so much of our broadcasting in the UK.
That’s because many of our presenters did not go to state schools, so the exagerated demotic style is designed to disguise that.
Agreed, especially the ersatz Northern continuity announcers!
However it would be a good thing if the state schools taught standard English, not to get rid of regional accents (which often enrich Standard English) but because of the structure, range of vocabulary and communication skills it confers. Encouraging clear and articulate speech would be a form of levelling up.
The worst of all possible worlds is ‘Estuary English’ which is inherently ugly and culturally limiting. It doesn’t have either the wit and creativity of Cockney or the elegance of Received Pronunciation.
Very interesting article even from a Left perspective though not sure Gove/Cummings prospective reforms can signal end of Left/Right divide. I voted Remain and am a Labour member. Also supported Corbyn. The Left still concerns itself with wealth redistribution and public ownership or control. This may not encompass New Labour or Centrists to which I must assume the article refers. I can see how a social democratic consensus could be built on the basis of Civil Service reform as it being out of touch and old fashioned. However as in Education as Give found, though then with less of a majority, the trades unions that still retain some strength in the public sector have something to say on this. Without proper consultation you can lose hearts and minds and end up with a mess, at least to begin with. I think it is true to say that the establishment including senior civil service were out of touch with many re Brexit as regards immigration and a challenged white culture. They do not tend to have the same challenges in their way of life. Many were reluctant passengers on a trip to a multicultural future they largely feared. The problem with civil service reform is that it may take the shape of Thatcherism for the public sector and I think post 2008 collapse I can be debated whether this sort of privatisation is desirable. Also for the Civil Service not to be Londoncentric the economy has to cease to be that way and that is a big ask.
A few observations.
The first: change is badly needed. The country has become so unbalanced that social unrest will arise if inequality is not addressed. Food banks and charity shops are not symptoms of a healthy state, they are not something we should be proud of.
The second is that although change is necessary (and Gove appears to be making some well reasoned noises) he misses the elephant in the room. Why on earth does he think a Tory party that accommodates characters such as Rees-Mogg has any legitimacy or capacity to lead such change. How on earth does he expect to shed the change-resistant, over-privileged baggage that still constitutes his party?
It is clear that Cummings, Gove and BoJo intend to make a splash. Its far from clear whether the political and bureaucratic apparatus will allow it. Institutions resistant to change need to be swept away and replaced – they cannot be tinkered with. But is this really realistic?
One strategy I’d consider is the forcible relocation of vast swathes of the UK civil bureaucracy out of London. This could be a cost neutral exercise and it would have the secondary effect of washing out those for whom change is unpalatable.
I also agree with the contention that generalist career structures lead to the development of generalist skills. The ability to report rather than anticipate and execute comes to dominate because effective anticipation results from domain experience. A complete rearrangement of Whitehall into centres of excellence where contextualized leadership and success should be the target.
Easier said than done and it still leaves the Tory party to be dealt with …..
Segwill leaving is definitely a good start and if departments move to the regions then let’s hope that some regional working class talent/wisdom is incorporated.
From what I can tell it is only Sherelle Jacobs that is the remaining mouthpiece for the old Right (in The Telegraph at least) who will need constantly reminding of the need for a Conservative State rather than a Socialist State to build up national resilience despite the embedded capital efficiency losses that her fellow libertarians will no doubt forever groan about.
Feels like a milestone has finally been reached and time for a well deserved rest.
Goodhart is one of the most honest and intellectually superior commentators currently available in this country. I just wish some one in government would recognise that he needs to be involved in formulating policy . Conservatives ( i am a paid up member) would be foolish not to use his talents
“the hidden majority in rich democracies ” social democratic in economics and a bit to the Right on cultural issues.”
It’s great that the Tory party has embraced social democracy – I hope they really deliver greater equality, better funded services, reindustrialisation and reunionisation. But why do these commentaries never set out what is meant by “to the Right on cultural issues”? Is it just immigration? Nobody ever spells it out.
I am not convinced. It’s just the same old Toryism using clever marketing to make them and their policies sound cuddly.
It sounds very positive and good on Gove and the rest if they deliver on this. However as we have seen from the early problems of schools and transport unions in the exit from lockdown the hard left has ditched common sense for spoiling tactics. In fact this baked-in intransigence comes from 20 years plus of having their cake and eating it, of job security, combined with good pay and DBS pensions. Similarly the civil service whose interface with the public sector and multiple layers of Quangos is like the stacked ripples of fat around an obese waist; a blob into which all disappears and nothing gets done.
Interesting the civil service obsession with generalists and moving people around has also failed the bank HSBC whose international managers never stay long enough to do anything positive – in fact positive becomes the status quo. If nothing bad happens on your watch you are moved on to another lucrative overseas post….
Delivering progress, value and change takes time and leadership needs to take considered manageable risks and live with them.
Good luck to Cummings and Co; I know from experience changing entrenched views/culture is extremely difficult but especially so when injecting life into a stagnant pool is not a realistic choice.
The public sector needs to switch to a DC pension scheme ( a financing cost that is the elephant in the room) and clear out those who won’t change. This has happened throughout the private sector.
A new “contract” is required for working in the public sector and civil service.
Change Champions at every level plus a hiring spree of students AND the private sector
Selective meritocracies like China or France are the only way to achieve rule by the best. As Aristotle saw long ago. Most of what Gove says opens the door to second-rate government. And we need less goverment. The NHS is a mistaken state monopoly . Trade should be in the hands of Chambers of Commerce, as in USA, Germany, France. Leaving the EU is insane.
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