Michael Gove: the wolf of Whitehall

The minister hopes to sink his teeth into higher education but his political stock is falling, argues Christopher Prendergast

April 10, 2014

Source: David Parkins

Even when in exceptionally inventive mood, you couldn’t make this up.

First there was the 15 March cover of The Spectator, which reminded me of nothing so much as an old cartoon drawing of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. The Don and the pretend-donnish Michael Gove have much in common, notably the former when delirious and the latter when sputtering fragments of discourse like bits of broken spaghetti. Yet, where Quixote is amiably crazy, the secretary of state for education is seriously scary, figured as a dementedly visionary soldier with bayoneted rifle readied for what the caption bills as “Gove’s Last Stand”. Perhaps we are meant to bear in mind the fate of General Custer, although the intended reference is to the last-ditch defence of “education” (against takeover by the dreaded “Blob”). But the imagery inevitably alludes also to Gove’s trenchant “views” on the origins and nature of the First World War. It seems that Jeremy Paxman had Gove in mind when referring to certain interventions on how to “remember” the war as those of a “charlatan”. Rough stuff, to be sure, but, as someone who himself is no slouch in the abuse department, Gove can have no grounds for complaint; live by the sword, etc. Gove is an ambulatory, if increasingly tottering, one-man insult machine, who did not hesitate to scoop mud from the gutter for his attempted smear job on Richard J. Evans, the Regius professor of history in my own university (someone who actually knows what he’s talking about). There is a reasonable case for taking fools if not gladly then charitably, and also a case – less compelling – for engaging with the arrogantly dogmatic. But when the two combine in one, there is none that any sane person could recognise.

Even The Spectator, a friend of the Govean project, included a piece by the author Anthony Horowitz likely to make one’s hair stand on end. Horowitz, while declaring himself sympathetic to Gove’s “reforms”, describes interviewing him as akin to “interviewing Stonehenge”, an unsettling experience no doubt, but a mere bagatelle before the developing sense of Gove as distinctly menacing: “It is just possible”, he concludes, that “the minister is a monster”.

The monster is clearly on the prowl, but to what ends? Perhaps it’s the arrival of spring, which famously can make brazen idiots of us all. More likely it’s the rapidly plummeting share price of Gove Inc. we’ve been witnessing over the past weeks, with even MPs in his own party taking short positions. A falling share price, however, is no joke. How then to talk it back up, and into the bargain get yourself on to the front page of the Financial Times? Shock! Horror! Gove tells an FT journalist that there is a “preposterous” number of Etonians in the Cabinet and David Cameron’s inner circle. Only a week or so previously, he was telling us that what school you hailed from was irrelevant and a peculiarly “English” obsession. But not to worry, it’s not that out of the Tory blue Gove has suddenly been reborn as a sans-culotte with a red Phrygian cap pulled down over the frame of the Hogwarts horn-rimmed glasses. Eton in the Cabinet is nothing to do with the social effects of money, privilege and patronage, and everything to do with a failed state education system that doesn’t get enough pupils on free school meals into Oxbridge, a failure to be laid of course at the door of previous (Labour) governments, a lamentable legacy on which Gove dines out daily with an insatiable after-dark hunger and very sharp teeth.

Whatever it was that possessed the editors to put this piffle on the front page, it triggered across the media an extended display of pure clownery around what is universally held to have been Gove’s real purpose (it’s about the leadership, stupid, and in particular an attempt to deflate the chances of Boris Johnson, the rotund Etonian, who has been on manoeuvres for some time, and whose stock, amazingly, seems to hold its value). But who knows? Perhaps the aspiration is less to displace Boris as future leader than to usurp his position as top clown in the political circus. Fat chance. Feral Boris up to his waist in mud like a character out of a Samuel Beckett play, or suspended in mid-air harness, his goolies perilously threatened by the straps, is 10 times the comic-book artist, and also 10 times cleverer.

In the meantime, the only use I can see for this farrago is that it supports the view that what Gove brings to the political playing field (not those of Eton, of course) is the smarts of Goofy and (as evidenced by the Horowitz shudder) the appetites of Dracula. Alas, the football in this boys’ game of whispered musical chairs is our education system. In the same interview, Gove also disclosed the longer-range ambition to take “control” of universities. That’s the problem both with and for vampires; they can never get enough, and, figuratively speaking, only a stake through the heart can save us from this rapaciousness.

When, in frustration, I recently penned a letter to a national newspaper about Gove, one of the hundreds of responses I received came from the depths of Buckinghamshire (not traditionally a home to lefties), from a school governor no less: “Just a line to thank you for your splendidly rude letter about Gove. I plan to read it at the governors’ meeting at our local primary school on Thursday. Eighteen months ago, at a Golden Wedding party, I was sitting at a table where I knew almost nobody. I volunteered the view that ‘Mr Gove is a justification for assassination’ and a large stranger got up and walked round to me – to shake my hand.” Also figuratively speaking, I presume, but, like I said, live by the sword…and keep an eye on the political stock market.

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Reader's comments (3)

Appalling article. An uninformative rant that can be summarised succinctly as "I don't like Michael Gove".
What a puerile and lazy op ed. Nice of the author to cite his own much-lauded rude letter to a national newspaper. Why was this article ever printed?
I have to agree. Not a great fan of Gove, but this is a rant. Anthony Horovitz's gnomic, unsubstantiated claims - read insults - are also equally bewildering

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