Speeches come and go, particularly during election campaigns. But sometimes there’s a speech that refuses to do the latter. It pulls you up by your ears, grabs hold of your consciousness, and stamps itself on your memory. I suspect that Michael Gove’s latest is one of them.
The Chief Whip was speaking at the launch event of Tim Montgomerie’s Good Right project, in the regal surroundings of the Legatum Institute, yesterday evening. Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace have already written about the Good Right, so I shall refrain from adding much here. Instead, I’ll make a few points about the speech itself.
But before I do, can I urge you to read the whole thing? There a copy of the text here. It’s rather long, as these things go, but it’s worth your time. I’ll still be here when you return.
And now that you’ve given of your time, here’s a scattering of observations:
- “…we are warriors for the dispossessed…” Form mirrored content, insofar as Gove’s rhetoric was crusading and righteous. He unashamedly used words that are more often found in Labour politicians’ speeches, such as “progressive” and “inequality”. But this wasn’t some sop to the left. It was a full-blooded attempt to broaden people’s perceptions about Conservatism, to see it as the moral mission it can be.
- “We believe in the State as emancipator…” Right from the off, Gove made sure to subscribe to one of the Good Right’s founding tenets: that the state isn’t an evil in itself. Here, he drew parallels with those on the left (“there is a belief in the justice of Government helping the poorest”), but also distinctions (“we reject the idea that the State should erode individual independence”). One of the great achievements of Tim Montgomerie’s project, so far, is how it has sparked a conversation – and, yes, disagreement – about the size and role of the state. The Conservatives have needed that for a while.
- “Roosevelt also knew that you needed Government…” It was striking how, when talking about how good the right can be, Gove led with American examples: Hamilton, Lincoln, Roosevelt, etc. Perhaps this was in consideration to his hosts, the Legatum Institute, who are an “international think tank” with a deep interest in the United States. Or perhaps it was a nudge to sceptics on the right, along the lines of “Hey! Even Republicans get this stuff!” Either way, I particularly enjoyed his description of how, by ending the Cold War, Thatcher and Reagan helped bring about the “liberation of billions” from poverty.
- “…we inherited a Britain which was two nations…” One Nation Labour? Pah! One of the more bluntly political aspects of Gove’s speech was its disregard for Gordon Brown and his government. Here, he sought to spin common assumptions around: Labour were the ones who nurtured an “elite insulated from the economic mess,” and left “a majority suffering”. By contrast, the Coalition is reforming taxes to “ensure the undeserving rich pay more”.
- “Inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time.” In that same passage on the “undeserving rich,” Gove made one of the boldest claims of his speech, which I’ll repeat: “Inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time.” There is a growing recognition of this on the right – The Spectator recently made a similar point in one of its editorials – but it will be unpalatable to some. As befits his Parliamentary role, the Chief Whip is telling people what they need to hear, not simply what they want to hear.
- “David Cameron has governed as a modern, compassionate conservative.” With an election coming, this was a resoundingly loyal speech. The Prime Minister was mentioned by name a dozen breathless times. But more interesting was Gove’s definition of what a “modern, compassionate conservative” is – beyond Dave. “Modern because it’s aware that we face new pressures as the result of economic and demographic changes. Compassionate because it recognises that means we need a greater emphasis on care and relationships. And Conservative because the role of individual agency and responsibility is at the heart of making things better.”
- “What is progressive about spending more on debt interest than on schools…?” The intergenerational decency of deficit reduction has been hailed before, but not enough, and Gove did it better than most. It’s what I think the Good Right’s mission ought to, and no doubt will, be: a constant striving for a better future. This can’t just be something for the election. It’s a long-term thing.
- “…the vision of Iain Duncan Smith.” Even just in its name-checks, this was a wide-ranging speech. Eric Pickles, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Nicky Morgan and more were all mentioned by Gove, as he tried to cast the Government’s entire agenda as a battle for social justice. But it was Iain Duncan Smith who rightly received an entire passage to himself. The growth in employment was explicitly linked to the Work and Pension Secretary’s reforms, which is something that Downing Street doesn’t do as often as it should. IDS is the minister, above all others, who developed a creed of compassionate conservatism before 2010 and has implemented it since.
- “Yorkshire has created more jobs than the whole of France.” The jobs numbers were given heavy airtime, but more engagingly than usual. This is the way to render statistics memorable.
- “…the Labour MP Simon Danzcuk…” Aside from his determined attacks on the last Labour government, the Chief Whip was kind to his political opponents. There were approving mentions for Simon Danzcuk and Frank Field, as well as a nod towards the “good intentions of most of their front bench”. This, despite how he is viewed on the left and how he bristled and fought for schools reform, is one of the defining qualities of Gove: his politeness and charm. It makes him easier to listen to than most politicians.
- “…those six campaign principles…” One of the more newsworthy aspects of Gove’s speech, apart from the very fact of it, was his list of the Conservatives’ “six campaign principles”. They were: i) “living within our means,” ii) “generating full employment,” iii) “better rewarding work,” iv) “spreading educational excellence,” v) “providing security in retirement,” and vi) “ensuring more people can own their own home”. I’m not sure whether these have been cleared with Lynton, but it was encouraging to hear an emphasis on things other than Europe and immigration. You’ll also notice that they chime with ConservativeHome’s own manifesto themes.
- “If anything, the SNP is even less progressive than Labour…” Just in case you’d forgotten that there’s an election coming, Gove finished by conjuring dread at the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition. Again, he portrayed their tax ‘n’ spend politics as a threat to social justice: “the campaign pitch of the Scottish nationalists in this election is a demand for as much money as possible to be invested, not in the poorest, those most in need or the most vulnerable, wherever they live in these islands, but in Alex Salmond’s pork barrel.”
It’s possible to quibble with some of what Gove said, but, for once, I’m not really in a quibbling mood. Here was a speech that the Conservative leadership should have been making consistently for years. They have the right policies, in many cases, but they rarely express them with such vigour and humanity. The perception of a party of and for the rich persists, in part, because it is allowed to persist.
This is what Gove himself can do for the party, in his new, more freewheeling role. He can be the “warrior for the dispossessed” that he described. And he can be that because, for him, it’s more than just words. This speech drew its force not from its eloquence, nor really from the clarity of its argument, but because its author enacted school reforms to help the least well-off into a better education. All politicians should be judged by what they do, rather than what they say.
But what Gove said last night did feel significant in some way. The Good Right is here, and it already seems to be making a difference.