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MORGAN Nicky headshot

Nicky Morgan is best known for not being Michael Gove. In July this year, when she replaced him as Education Secretary, this was taken by some Conservatives as an ominous sign that the Government had given up on radical reform: especially as in the same reshuffle, Owen Paterson was sacked as Environment Secretary.

There has undoubtedly been a change of tone. In a lecture Morgan gave last Thursday, she declared: “For those looking for an ideological sparring partner to do battle with, quite simply I’m not your woman.”

This means Morgan is far less of a gift to a conflict-hungry press than Gove was: instead of throwing ideological punches, she tries to convince people that she is on their side. Her manner is inclusive, reassuring and impregnably nice.

But this does not mean she is weak. In this interview, she defies the Tory campaigners for grammar schools, and dismisses Tristram Hunt, her Labour opposite number, as “vacuous”. She also numbers, rather astonishingly, Henry VIII, Mikhail Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk among her heroes.

One of the keys to David Cameron’s politics is his Anglicanism: his undogmatic insistence on a certain code of behaviour, which he suggests is the way any reasonable person would wish to behave. I asked Morgan whether her Christian faith helps to explain her politics.

ConHome: “This a very big question, which most politicians are completely incapable of talking about, and if Alastair Campbell was here he would immediately intervene and smash my tape recorder or something. But I think it’s nevertheless a very interesting question which needs the right language, and that is really what the whole role of Christianity is in politics, both generally and for you personally. I think this is particularly important because we’re trying to work out what the role of Islam is in politics, and if one doesn’t also say what the role is of what has traditionally been the faith of this country, then I think it’s extremely unfair. Anyhow, tell me about Christianity in politics: from your point of view, you personally, you’re a Christian?”

Morgan: “I’m a Christian, I go to church, I go and help out at my Sunday school.”

ConHome: “Is that an Anglican church?”

Morgan: “Yup. Very, very bog standard C of E, if that’s a technical term, I’m not sure the Archbishop of Canterbury would necessarily know that, but you know what I mean, neither high church nor very low church, I mean you know very, very middle of the road Anglican.”

ConHome: “This is near Loughborough [her parliamentary constituency]?”

Morgan: “It is, it’s in the middle of Loughborough, yup. And for me personally, it’s part of my value system, I suppose. I think there is still a reluctance to talk about one’s own personal faith in politics. At the end of the day you have got to represent everybody. I have a personal faith, but that’s not going to dominate every decision I make in relation to my constituency or to my ministerial post. But I also think people should be free to be open about their own personal faith. Or lack of personal faith. In terms of more broadly, Britain is still, I think, a basically Christian country. The Prime Minister’s said that recently. The King James Bible and many other Christian tracts or Christian practices are a huge source of the things that we believe in this country. You think about the wording from the Bible and the music and art and all sorts of things. And as an Education Secretary I’m a huge supporter of faith schools, a huge supporter of Church schools, I think that our education system owes a massive amount to the Church of England and to the Catholic Church. But I also think we can’t ignore the fact that we now live in a country where lots of other religions and none are practised. And that’s why I think that our education system has to offer a broader balanced curriculum and has to open all of our young people’s minds to everything in modern Britain.”

ConHome: “Is there a danger, in attempting to root out extremists, that one might impose a rather secular, politically correct dogma?”

Morgan: “Well there is always a danger, but as a Christian Secretary of State for Education, that is not what I want to see.”

ConHome: “I have the impression that devout Christians tend to have greater understanding of devout Muslims than a certain kind of angry secularist does.”

Morgan: “Well I think what’s really interesting is that as a Member of Parliament with a significant, not huge, but a significant Muslim population, I’ve got a lot of Bangladeshi Muslims in my constituency, as I have Sikhs and Hindus, and actually I think that we might come from different vantage points, if you like, but we often have a very good discussion about faith. I’m nine miles from Leicester, which I think is the country’s first majority non-white city, and actually the faiths in Leicester I think are a model, I never want to say anything’s perfect because nothing ever is, but I think the faiths in Leicester, led I suspect by the Church of England in many ways, are a model of inter-faith co-operation and respect.”

ConHome: “You’ve changed your view on same-sex marriage.”

Morgan: “Well I stand by my vote in 2013 [when she voted against]. But yes, obviously, since then, having spoken to lots of different people, and realised quite how excluded people in same-sex relationships felt from the institution of marriage, and marriage is a pretty important institution for our society, I have realised that yes, were the vote to be re-run, I probably would vote in a different way. I’m afraid to say we had a storm in Loughborough recently with some people who wrote to the Echo criticising me, and saying the most unpleasant things about same-sex relationships. Lots of letters. I’m not sure I want to be allied with that side of the argument.”

ConHome: “Were your Bright Blue comments, when you said the Conservatives need less ‘hate’ to win the election, on the record?”

Morgan: “I said what I felt, and I still think it’s right, which is that people want to hear from politicians about what they’re going to do for them in the future, and I think it’s very important to be realistic but to be positive.”

ConHome: “It wasn’t exactly a very controversial thesis.”

Morgan: “Well you wouldn’t have thought so.”

ConHome: “Did you get reproached at all after that?”

Morgan: “No, no, no… We have done lots of great things, and we do spend time talking about the trickier issues rather than the great things that we have done, and that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for us as politicians and I think it’s frustrating for members of the public.”

ConHome: “So what are the implications now for how the Conservative Party deals with UKIP between now and May?”

Morgan: “Well we have to take them on as a political party. They are there, they have two Members of Parliament, they do appear to have some policies, apparently.”

ConHome: “Can you describe a bit the tone of voice in which you do this?”

Morgan: “We have some brilliant things in this country. We have amazing engineering skills. We have great arts. We have huge promise in science. Look at our manufacturing base. It’s about providing that vision of the future, providing that security, saying we have a plan, not just actually we’re a random collection of people and our main thing is we’d like just to leave Europe, and after that we’re not entirely sure where we’ll go next.”

ConHome: “I don’t really like the word plan. It just has a slight Soviet tinge.”

Morgan: “I know what you mean, and obviously wording is very important. But I do think people like to know there’s something behind it, they’re not just a random collection of policies, they haven’t all just been cut from a think tank booklet, we’re actually interested in what works, what’s going to make a difference for the parents at the school gates. It’s about what works on the ground, and I see lots working, and that’s where I get very annoyed with people like Tristram Hunt and the shadow education front bench who are always running things down. You know actually they had the nerve to talk about teacher recruitment today [at Education Questions in the Commons on Monday], and as I pointed out actually what Tristram should be doing is saying this is why teaching is a great profession, not we’ve got some facile idea for you swearing some hypocritic oath, and I’m using hypocritic as opposed to Hippocratic. But there’s so much good stuff on Tristram. He’s vacuous.”

ConHome: “Golly. This is getting rough. What else apart from vacuous?”

Morgan: “Well in terms of education policy, I don’t think we’ve heard yet in any coherent and consistent way about what he would want to do as Education Secretary in terms of continuing to raise attainment, support teachers, sort out all the issues around Rotherham and Rochdale. They’re tricky issues. All I hear is an attack on independent schools, an oath that teachers are going to swear, and that’s it. Anything else? Oh yes, and a recoupling of AS and A levels. That’s it. And that’s not a policy for government.”

ConHome: “If you were marking his homework, what would you be giving him?”

Morgan: “I would say he gets a big zero. That’s out of ten.”

ConHome: “Well some of us do want to see the reintroduction of difficulty to education.”

Morgan: “The raising of standards does apply to Tristram. But this is the thing about the Labour Party, actually, generally, which is there are lots of individual policy announcements, they’re picked up for a few days, they run with it for a day and a half and then it’s dropped on to something else.”

ConHome: “So they just don’t stick with it?”

Morgan: “They don’t stick with it.”

ConHome: “So is there any way back for Tristram?”

Morgan: “The Labour Uncut website says, ‘It is not so much that Tristram Hunt has the wrong policies for education; it is that he appears to have none.’ I think one reason you can see: the dearth of people on the benches behind him, and his appeal to the Labour core vote – a lot of it is looking behind him, not looking forward.”

ConHome: “So he’s desperate to propitiate his own party?”

Morgan: “Yep. He’s the worst-rated shadow cabinet member [in a Labour List poll].”

ConHome: “Well that’s a bit of a feather in his cap.”

Morgan: “Education’s very important. I’d rather have a sparring match with someone who’s clearly put a lot of thought into what he’s saying. At some point in the next five months they’re going to have to put forward a manifesto. We’ll see whether they remember to mention the deficit.”

ConHome: “Perhaps you could surprise people who have this mistaken idea that you’re a gentle, eirenic figure. Perhaps you could be an attack dog.”

Morgan: “I can attack when necessary. What I say and do here in Westminster comes very clearly from my constituency. I was a candidate in Loughborough for six and a half years before I got elected in 2010. I go and stand in Loughborough Market for a couple of hours every few weeks, chatting away to people.”

ConHome: “Do you have a stand?”

Morgan: “I have a stand, and I stand and talk to people outside the Town Hall, and they avoid me if they don’t want to talk to me, or they come up to me.”

ConHome: “Do you give balloons out?”

Morgan: “No. Only at election time. And it’s fascinating talking to teachers about what’s going on in the classroom, talking to people about taxes, about pensions, and the number of Labour people who come up and they know Ed Miliband is not prime ministerial. I had one lady in a town of mine called Shepshed, a life-long Labour member, and she came up to me and said ‘I wouldn’t vote Conservative, it’s not in my nature, but I cannot vote for Ed Miliband’. And if he’s failing to cut through in Midlands marginals then that’s a problem that for me obviously is good news. But that’s an issue for them to sort out. But I think also Emily Thornberry, the tweet, the slight sneeriness about people and everything else, I just think shows a basic lack of understanding. They like to think that we’re out of touch. I personally would say that actually they are out of touch.”

ConHome: “Polling suggests the Conservative Party still has a problem of being seen as the party of the rich.”

Morgan: “I think politicians have a problem. I do think we don’t do enough to explain what Members of Parliament actually do. We are talking to many thousands of people in our constituencies, much more, I would suggest, than others who dare to criticise. I would like to think I have a pretty clear idea of what people in Loughborough are thinking. That is my reference point in a discussion at national level.”

ConHome: “So could you just characterise Loughborough woman or man?”

Morgan: “Hard-working, what’s best for their family, relies on local schools, local hospitals, often lived in the area for quite long time, a fair number of public service employees, we also have a fair number of manufacturing businesses in the East Midlands, may well be self-employed, just enormously sensible and doesn’t over-react to stuff that the national press get excited about.”

ConHome: “Who are your political heroes?”

Morgan: “Well obviously Baroness Thatcher. First female Prime Minister.”

ConHome: “You joined the party because of her?”

Morgan: “Yeah, absolutely. She was inspirational. I joined the party in 1989 [at the age of 17]. But the other people I always say are people who want to change the system from the inside. People like Gorbachev and de Klerk, who are prepared to take on the system, having been elected or appointed in that system, and then they say, ‘No well actually this system is no longer fit for purpose, it needs to change’.”

ConHome: “Gosh. Are we in need of Glasnost?”

Morgan: “The Westminster system, there’s no doubt about it, people want to know honestly from their politicians about what can change and what can’t change. And why we’re doing things. They want to know what motivates us to be making change. That’s why I’m so clear about what motivates us on our education reforms. It’s about educational excellence and opportunity for everybody.”

ConHome: “A mixture of elitism and egalitarianism.”

Morgan: “No, I’m not saying elitism. Good schools for all.”

ConHome: “Do you have a favourite monarch?”

Morgan: “Well I love the Tudor period. I think Henry VIII [laughter, expressions of astonishment by her two aides as well as by ConHome]. Shall I change that to Elizabeth I? A strong female monarch at a time when there weren’t many examples.”

ConHome: “She was very good at not really telling you what she was doing.”

Morgan: “I’m not planning to fight the Spanish Armada any time soon.”

ConHome: “But if you have to go down to Tilbury you’ll give a decent speech.”

Morgan: “Just on education, the reform agenda continues. My job is to explain why we’ve done the reforms, who they are benefiting, and then as I say to add some things about the well-rounded young person.”

ConHome: “Cyril Connolly was very down on the idea of character, but then he’d had a horrible time at his prep school. What’s it like taking over from Michael Gove?”

Nicky Morgan: “Well at some point somebody will stop asking me that question.”

ConHome: “Yes, sorry.”

Morgan: “No it’s fine, absolutely fine. Well they are obviously big shoes to fill and he was a hugely reforming Secretary of State. Part of what I do is explaining why we made the reforms that we’ve made and what they actually mean to people. And I think that Michael had to do so much, with the then ministerial team, in terms of academies and free schools, the curriculum, teacher recruitment, and rigour and academic standards, that actually there are some other things that I’m now able to concentrate on. He had to really focus on a few things, because actually getting the Whitehall machine to deliver is pretty hard work. He and his advisers really had to make it focus.”

ConHome: “I have to ask you about grammar schools, because it’s such an issue in the Tory Party. Should there be new grammar schools?”

Morgan: “Well we set out very clear criteria for how the extension of a grammar school could be approved, and obviously we’ve got one application that’s been made at the moment that’s going to be decided on those very clear criteria.”

ConHome: “The one in Sevenoaks?”

Morgan: “That’s right. I was reading the Sunday Telegraph yesterday about this campaign that’s started up, and people saying the only way to get access to good state education is to reintroduce grammar schools, and they’re the ones that push social mobility. And I would push back on that and just say actually we want all of our state schools to be good and outstanding, and we are seeing more. One of Michael’s legacies is we now have more good and outstanding schools, over 800,000 more students going to good and outstanding schools, and if we seriously want to focus on social mobility, the transforming effect of education, I’m not sure that separating people at the age of 11 is the right way to go about it.”

ConHome: “So Graham Brady’s going to be slightly disappointed. But perhaps he never had great expectations.”

Morgan: “Well you’ll have to ask Graham what he’s expecting out of all of this. Look, I think it is a matter that is kept under review. We do know how strongly people in the party feel about it. I don’t honestly, I haven’t had lots of parents emailing me about it.”

ConHome: “Ah, right. Yes.”

Morgan: “And I think actually that goes back to a bigger point about education. Which is actually, when I ask parents, what kind of school does your child go to, actually most of them, what they’re looking for is a good local school.”

Here is a characteristically unpolitical note on which to end. Morgan does not wish to sound political. Like most Anglicans, she wishes to convince you that she is in the middle of the road, and poses no threat to anyone.

79 comments for: Interview: Nicky Morgan – “As a Christian Secretary of State for Education, I will oppose secular, politically correct dogma”

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