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Artillery Row

Gove away

Sentimental tributes to the outgoing Tory overstate his political virtues

It’s been frankly nauseating to read the tributes to Michael Gove this weekend. From the tone of some of the reactions to his retirement, you might have thought a legendary statesman had died. “An accomplished politician and dedicated public servant.” “I will be forever grateful for … his courage, his vision, his determination.” “A whole generation of English kids have so much to thank Michael Gove for.”

What’s depressing is that this shows how little we have learned. Almost everyone agrees that Conservative governance has been a terrible failure. So, how can a man who has been at the heart of Conservative governance again and again deserve such plaudits? It is not as if Gove is a Tory Frank Field — dissenting from the party line. He is almost as identifiable with modern Conservatism as Ronald is identifiable with McDonald’s.

If you think Conservative rule has had too much in common with Blairism, look no further than Mr Gove. “Tony Blair is proving an outstanding Prime Minister,” he wrote in 2003. Almost two decades later, when Blair received his knighthood, Gove was still calling him an “outstanding statesman”. 

I’d hate to know what his idea of failure looks like

A lot of Conservatives supported the Iraq War. Gove was unusual in still defending the invasion years afterwards. In 2008, he described Britain’s involvement as “a proper British foreign policy success”. I’d hate to know what his idea of failure looks like.

“Invade the world, invite the world” is how the American commentator Steve Sailer described the perverse nature of neoconservative ambitions. Gove has proudly represented this tendency in British politics. In 2018, he celebrated Britain’s “liberal forward-thinking” attitude towards non-EU immigration after Brexit — which promptly shot through the roof.

Gove is often celebrated for his ministerial effectiveness. Certainly, his intelligence and knowledge exceed that of his colleagues. But what has he actually done with them? It’s understandable that Conservatives want to believe in his time as Secretary of State for Education, given the extent to which he was hated by the National Union of Teachers. But the evidence behind the value of his biggest lasting accomplishment, multi-academy trusts, is dubious at best. His empowerment of Ofsted inspections, meanwhile, has encouraged an exodus from the teaching profession.

It would be performatively spiteful to suggest that Gove has done nothing good. I appreciated his Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, for example, which toughened sanctions against animal abusers. But he simply didn’t deliver on the big stuff. For all of his supposed effectiveness, he talked about the need for planning reform far more than he delivered it. As Henry Hill wrote last year, “an understandable failure is still a failure”. 

Instead, Gove has focused a lot of energy on petty prohibitionism. As Christopher Snowdon acidly observed this month, “No one is keener on the trivial knee-jerk ban than the hyper-active Michael Gove”. 

As Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (an incoherent and confusing name for an incoherent and confusing government), Gove has been a champion of devolution — an ideal that everyone in government seems to believe in even as councils go bust across the country. His new definition of “extremism”, as I wrote in these pages, was an absolute mess, and dangerous one if it is used as a guide of who is and is not politically unspeakable.

Politically, Gove has always been a snake. He denied that he had ambitions to become prime minister time and again before betraying his pro-Leave ally Boris Johnson by announcing his campaign to run against Boris and become PM. (Gove somehow did worse than Andrea Leadsom.) 

Yet he has also remained central to British Conservatism by being a political chameleon. It was amazing to watch him breeze into the 2023 National Conservatism conference for a short onstage interview and say nothing of substance with passionate conviction. “To hear Gove,” I wrote at the time, “Is to hear a man who could have been a multi-millionaire in the more lucrative used car business.”

Again, it would be crass to behave as if Mr Gove is not a gifted man. It is undeniable, listening to his oratory, that he is more thoughtful than most of his peers. He must have considerable charm to have survived at the highest levels of politics for so long. But to have gifts and to misuse them is considerably worse than to have been merely hopeless.

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