Last night at Tory Party Conference, Michael Gove was interviewed by Iain Martin at a Policy Exchange event. To watch him in action is to witness all the current contradictions of his party.
On the one hand, Gove is the embodiment of the conservative instinct; famously polite, his sentences are always elegant, his choice of words always precise. In a discussion about the constitution he repeatedly described himself as a “small c conservative”; the supreme court judgement “repays thoughtful reading” – like Alexander Hamilton’s essays at the founding of the American republic, he said, much deeper thought needs to go into any constitutional invention. Caution must always prevail.
From this angle, the current atmosphere of Tory recklessness – proroguements, people versus parliament, “do or die” – seems distinctly unGovian.
But on the other hand, beneath his considered exterior, lies the energy of a radical. It was Gove, after all, who has sponsored and defended Dominic Cummings since the beginning; he famously turned on Boris Johnson at the eleventh hour and scuppered his leadership campaign (there was nothing polite about that); and he is known to entertain far more radical policies on tax and education than many of his colleagues.
In a way, this contradiction is the central brain-teaser of the Conservative Party in 2019. How did such a venerable, genteel, cautious party get comfortable with playing so rough and ready?
Gove’s most successful moment during this hour-long interview was when a woman in the audience asked him to defend, once again, the incendiary language his colleagues are using (see video above). Watch the gradual crescendo as he wakes himself up and finds his rhetoric, touching on Milton’s Areopagitica, John Stuart Mill and the world wars of the twentieth century within a single sentence. Cue spontaneous applause from the audience of Tory members.
This, in a two minute clip, is how the Conservative Party reconciles itself to sharp tactics and inflammatory language: by reminding itself of instances in history where the highest ideals (democracy, freedom of speech) have needed a rough defence to prevail.
Full interview is below.