Last month, I wrote an article entitled ‘It’s time to let the Lady rest in peace’. Although some commentators seemed to take it as such, it wasn’t an attack on the principles which (I think) the Lady stood for: liberty for the individual; a self-conscious appreciation of Britain’s potential and duty to fulfil it; respect for our institutions; strength in our dealings abroad.
Rather, I was attacking the somewhat personality-cultish style which some ‘Thatcherites’ have taken up since her deposition. “What would Thatcher do?” and “Maggie would never have stood for this!” became the signature rallying cries for the longest period of political impotence that I can think of in this party’s history. I illustrated my case with the unfortunate squandering of John Major:
“The public was clearly ready for what we might term ‘post-Thatcherism’ – 80 per cent of the content, with a humbler, more personable face. For all that she “never lost an election”, the public had clearly run out of patience with the Iron Lady. Her decision to remain intimately involved with politics, and the willingness of her ideological partisans to take direction from her and effectively disembowel the Major administration – was selfish, short-sighted and intensely counterproductive to the long-term interests of her own beliefs.”
Plenty of people took issue with this critique, but I’m not here to re-fight it – you can read the whole thing in the linked article. I bring it up now because, in the aftermath of the reshuffle and in the interests of fairness, I have had to turn that same harsh lens on my own beliefs.
I’m an enormous fan of Michael Gove. I feel the way about Michael Gove that I suspect ardent Thatcherites feel about their own totem. I’m deeply engaged in his cause, convinced by his arguments, and find him inspiring, even heroic. Educational ‘progressives’ are one of the few sorts of political opponents I really struggle to deal with in a detached and friendly fashion. The patronising, excuse-seeking, future-wrecking conspiracy of low expectations that blights much of the education sector in this country is, in my view, one of the great evils of our time.
So imagine my horror when, on the home straight and with the vital sprint to come, my shining captain was unhorsed – and by his own leader! Oh yes, Gove is both polite and loyal and everyone insisted it was mutual. A vital new role in the general election was his, they said. But I knew it for what it was: treachery. Treachery with a smile on its face, as Maggie put it.
The case against the move can be made very easily, and has been by most of the centre-right press: a humiliating demotion for the most dynamic figure in government; an expression of low confidence in this administrations most important reforms; a dissuasive example to other ministers of Gove’s calibre, inclinations and efficacy; the sacrifice of a long-term governmental triumph upon the altar of a botched and widely-scorned reshuffle. Simple cowardice.
Yet if I indulge that line of thinking too quickly, I think I risk undermining my attempts to pluck the mote from the eyes of the Thatcherites by thrusting a beam into my own.
After all, it’s no lie to say that Gove was detested by certain, important sections of the public. Teachers broke almost evenly between Tories and Labour at the last election, I’ve heard, and there are a lot of them. Add to that their spouses, close friends and family and that’s a large pool of potential voters receiving a regular, high-concentration dose of hostility to this government.
I know it’s the done thing to say that doing what’s right is more important than winning elections, but that tends to be something only winners get away with saying – we still mock Labour for trying it in the Eighties, and they us for 2001 and 2005. Losing the election and handing Ed Miliband’s Labour party control over education is a nightmare worth sacrificing Gove to prevent, if necessary. The reforms are the critical issue, rather than the man.
If Nicky Morgan’s appointment marks the sounding of retreat over critical reforms, that’s obviously a disaster. But if she holds the line whilst being a more engaging, less abrasive figure than Gove is that not potentially useful? Fixed-term parliaments mean we know no new reforms will be forthcoming before 2015, and the process of quietly administering the revolution does not require the same imagination and fire that launching it does.
Gove is a fighter, and his impolitic sallies into other ministers’ territories suggest that he suffers from Thatcher’s great problem of always needing a fresh dragon to slay. If that is the case, why not deploy him against an actual dragon, the Labour Party’s 2015 campaign?
We are usually minded to find the smiles of our personal opponents to be an unbearable torment, far more than the undoubtedly greater but abstract and remote evils of foreign wars, far-off dictatorships and the like. Certainly the sight of Christine Blower, or even the Gove haters amongst my own acquaintances, crowing and clucking over his sacking is an acutely painful experience I’d rather do without.
But that’s my pride talking. The important thing is: will we continue to expand school choice for parents and pupils? Will we continue to loosen the stranglehold of ideologues in training colleges over the teaching profession? Will we continue to undermine the cartelism of the NUT and make teachers properly accountable for their individual performance, the good rewarded with higher pay and the terrible finally sacked? Will we continue to restore proper value to our exam system?
If so, and Gove’s scalp were the spoonful of sugar that helped that vital medicine go down, would that not be a price worth paying? Gove is as potent a cure for the ailments of British education as I can think of, but the potency of a medicine is irrelevant if the patient can no longer bring themselves to take it.
On balance, I still think that sacking Gove was a terrible thing to do – but that’s because I think that the case against him was overstated, and this harsh treatment of the government’s most formidable and effective reformer could have a dire long-term impact both on the current effort and on the reformers of tomorrow. It’s not because I think he’d somehow earned the right to stay in the role until he chose to leave, the way some seem to think Thatcher had. Admire our champions as we might, the cause must come first.