Tag Archives: Michael Gove

The pernicious influence of Goveian militarist clap-trap

As far back as March 2010, and that’s before he was enstooled at the DfE, The Times was mocking Michael Gove as a “meerkat“.  It’s not just the facial expressions: the constant self-grooming and sublime self-confidence are ever reminding of the fabulous Alexandr Orlov:


Things, of course, have gone from bad to worse. However, Anne Treneman has his service number:

New Year, New Gove. It seems that over the Christmas break Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has been busy turning himself into a military man or, in his case, meerkat.

Field Marshal Gove, of course, is currently re-fighting World War I:

He condemned the widely held view that the prosecution of the war was “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” as the misrepresentation and myth-making of “dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely WarThe Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder” and “left-wing academics” such as Sir Richard Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge. In fact, he denounced Sir Richard’s views as “more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate”. A dismissive comparison indeed coming from a man who thinksBlackadder is a drama.

Evans himself, Tony Robinson and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt all returned fire and even Margaret Macmillan, a historian praised by Gove, responded coolly saying: “You take your fans where you get them, I guess… but he is mistaking myths for rival interpretations of history.” Meanwhile, a fellow Tory member of the government said that “Michael should get back in his box”.

“Michael should get back in his box”

Ouch! And double ouch! What interpretation could possibly be lurking there? Here’s an unboxed clue:



Nothing to do with the snout, but the “study of diseases”. In this case a verbal dysentery, “an inflammatory disorder of the mouth”.

When Gove shouted “Rule Britannia,”
When he’d sung “God save the Queen,”
When he’d finished killing Evans with his mouth,

Mark Wallace at the ConHome cheer-leader squad donned the brass-hat and the red tabs, and contracted Gove’s ailment.  His piece is thin as gossamer, but the rhetoric is instructive: “invade new territory”, “stronghold is collapsing”. ” new campaign”, “dodgy generalship”, “core territory”, “solid supply lines”, “drive his divisions”, “own fortress”, “sallying forth”, “super weapons”, etc., etc.

Don’t you just feel the military metaphors are a trifle overdone? It’s party — even partisan — politicking, for heaven’s sake! Not the drums of total war, June 1941 and Fall Barbarossa.

Surely we should always be suspicious of such strained, purplest prose: it generally disguises threadbare argument. It may encourage the troops (which, apart from providing a jam-pot for the Kippers to buzz around in, is what ConHome is about), but we deserve something better, more solid than either Wallace or Gove, in their separate ways, provide.

Praise the lord and pass the ammunition

That was the thought that came to mind, reading Wallace.

It seemed a trifle Kiplingesque. But, no, it is as recent as 1942, and comes from Frank Loesser:

Down went the gunner, a bullet was his fate,
Down went the gunner, and then the gunner’s mate.
Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look,
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside the Book,

Shouting …

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we’ll all stay free!

Praise the Lord and swing into position!
Can’t afford to be a politician!
Praise the Lord, we’re all between perdition
And the deep blue sea.

So, two lessons here:

1. The war-talk is precisely what turns folk off political discourse. It’s unreal. It’s extreme. It’s contrived. It’s hysterical.

If political commentators or practitioners have something of point to say, that should be enough. Henry V before Harfleur, they are not. Today’s PMQs were instructive: Cameron seems to have relapsed into his shrill hectoring mode (his only alternative register to his pseudo-bedside palliatives). Miliband is experimenting with a softer, more measured, more deliberate tone. Nick Robinson, on BBC2 Daily Politics, murmured that the former might cheer the troops in the Tea Room and appeal to the lobby sketch-writers, but the latter could well have wider listener appeal. We shall see.

2. The other lesson is we are still sixteen months out from a General Election.

Under normal conditions — not this artificial fixed-parliament five-year-stretch abomination — we really would be waiting for the electoral starting gun.

Even at the outset, there was general agreement (i.e. everywhere except Nick Clegg’s inner circle) that five years was too long. Even the Commons own political and constitutional reform committee saw that:

Among its main concerns was the proposed length of the Parliament, which experts suggested should be shorter.

The government had justified the length by saying it went “with the grain of some of the founding texts of our unwritten constitution” – the maximum length of a Parliament was curtailed from seven years to five in 1911.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also said it followed the previous government’s precedent and would “give any government of whatever complexion enough time to govern and deliver a programme of change and reform”.

But the committee points out that the expectation of the 1911 changes was that five years would be the maximum – and, in practice, terms were expected to be four years.

Since 1979 four general elections were called after four-year parliaments, while three, in 1992, 1997 and 2010, were called after five years.

Constitution expert Professor Robert Hazell told the committee: “Those parliaments which lasted for five years did so because the government had become unpopular and did not want to hold an earlier election.

Instead there is still 1/3rd of a normal term to go. Parliament ought to have much unfinished business: it doesn’t. It has run out of puff. Lassitude is setting in. Every MP has eyes on May 2015, marking time, sounding off, filling in the voids, fretting on the majority. Among Tories, Item One is the inroads UKIP might make, particularly coming off a high in the Euro-poll.

In that sixteen months there is still ample room for umpteen mood-shifts either way. Writing off any — any — party (as Wallace does with contempt) and its leadership so prematurely is prejudging the case.

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Filed under Ann Treneman, BBC, Britain, broken society, ConHome, David Cameron, democracy, education, Elections, History, Lib Dems, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, Nick Robinson, politics, Times, Tories., World War 2

One from near home

Here is PoliticsHome feeding back from the daily Downing Street “Presidential briefing”:

Miller slammed over WW1 plans

Miller slammed over WW1 plans

Downing Street has slapped down allies of Michael Gove for criticising government plans to mark ANZAC sacrifices in the First World War. 

Sources close to the Education Secretary branded Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who has responsibility for the commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of the war, “out of her depth” and an “idiot”. 

The sources said Ms Miller had ignored the role played by Australians and New Zealanders in the fighting. 

“This is awful – the idiot Maria Miller is doing nothing to involve the rest of the Empire, who sent vast numbers of people to help us,” one source said.

However, the Prime Minister’s spokesman this morning defended the Government’s plans, and said the focus should be on the “very important commemoration” rather than the briefing against Ms Miller. 

“The idea that the plans we have in place are not going to commemorate the sacrifice that was made by the 150,000 ANZAC troops who died alongside British and other Commonwealth soldiers, and that’s not going to be a very important part, is completely wrong,” the spokesman said.

Got that? — Sources close to the Education Secretary. As close as the tongue is to the teeth, perhaps.

And now the personal bit

The Pert Young Piece (i.e #3 daughter) had a few days holiday due. She signed up to join the Antipodean ANZAC pilgrimage to Gallipoli. This was an excursion wholly applauded by her aged parents, for it gave them a prime opportunity to fly out to Istanbul for a few days, see the previously-unseen sights and sites, and meet her there.

Pert Young Piece was suitably moved by the overnight experience and dawn at ANZAC Cove — and not just because it was “dry”, not a common experience when young Australians gather. The Turkish input, too, seemed very positive: the emphasis was on shared suffering and attrition.

What got to her was the general assumption around her that this had been exclusively an Australian and New Zealander operation. It seems to be taught back home as the moment when these ex-colonies “came of age”. Not so, she was able to say: “My great-great Uncle Nev was here, and I have his DCM and Karageorgiou Star, and the mentions in dispatches, to prove it.”


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Filed under David Cameron, History, Michael Gove, politics, Tories.

A knot of Toad’s (sic)


Be patient! All will be explained!

Malcolm, when he became a man, failed to fulfil St Paul’s (and Sosthenes‘) injunction (I Corinthians 13:11) to put away childish things. Hence he continues to indulge in unsuitable literary fictions, squibs and satires, model railways, and daftnesses such as the cartographic graphophilia we had yesterday.

Some more of the same

Today’s Independent has it that one of the Head Lars [The tutelary deities of a house; household gods: OED, from Roman mythology] of English education has taken the hump against our Secretary of State for Education:

Education Secretary Michael’s Gove’s exam reform will “wreck” the English education system, the head of admissions to Oxford University warned yesterday.

Mike Nicholson told a conference in London that reforms to A-levels were “another great example of the Government’s tendency to meddle in things they should probably really leave alone”.

Mr Nicholson added that there was “widespread concern – not restricted to the secondary sector but also higher education” to push ahead with reforms to GCSEs and A-levels at the same time, adding: “The impact of bringing in both is going to just wreck the English education system.”

He added that plans to make the AS-level exam a standalone qualification would have “tragic consequences” for efforts to increase the participation of disadvantaged students at university.

Despite the Indy’s claim that Mr Nicholson’s comment will be a blow to Mr Gove, one severely doubts that Gove will be greatly discomfited by this. He has an infinite capacity, even a perverse intent, to épater le bourgeois, especially the cohorts of educational professionals thereof. Such are derided, apparently, in government as “The Blob”:

In the eponymous 1958 film, The Blob was a protean jelly-like alien that terrorised a small Pennsylvanian town. Indescribable, indestructible and seemingly unstoppable, it consumed everything in its path as it grew and grew. Until, that is, the overblown amoeba got its comeuppance at the hands of Steve McQueen. The Blob entered the political lexicon in the mid-1980s, adopted by William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration, as a term to describe the amorphous coalition of a bloated education bureaucracy, teacher unions and education research establishment that Bennett argued always obstructs or stifles school reform. After his resignation from Ofsted a decade ago, Chris Woodhead began to warn that British education was menaced by a Blob of its own, every bit as slimy, ruthless and voracious as the American original.

Well, of course, if Woodhead — educational resilient, Murdoch pet, and holder of advanced views on pupil-teacher relations — says so, it must be true.

On the other hand …

If that defines the mainstream of educational thinking (and practice), how do we type-cast Gove?

Let’s refer to the other (third oldest?, in view of those cave-painters whom, it transpires, were largely … shudder!women) profession — that of image-makers and cartoonists.

Many have Gove as the archetypal schoolboy — most elaborately by Chris Riddell for The Observer:

Riddell's Gove

Steve Bell takes the Govian pout and extends it into a full-blown bill:


Hmmm … Malcolm rather takes to ducks, as they do to water. They are harmless (if messy, especially in and around York University’s Halls of Residence — and York used to brag the highest “duck quotient” of any). They amuse. As on the riverside terrace at the Trout at Wolvercote, their quacking is a pleasant accompaniment to a sunny summer’s Sunday pub-lunch.


For Malcolm, then, Gove is far too devious, opinionated, ruthless, destructive, political to be duck-like. So, sorry, Steve Bell.

Non anas, sed anura!

That’s your actual Latin, says Sandy. Or Julian.

Any government tends to be determinist, overbearing, authoritarian, to “know best”. This one, especially the majority Tories, exceeds the mark. All authorities, experts, experience, history and precedents have to be scorned with sado-Osbornomics, HS2, climate-change, decanting the over-housed into non-existent smaller properties, inflating the biggest property bubble yet, handing out contracts willy-nilly to Serco, Crapita, G4S and other serial offenders, fighting unwinnable wars (against “terror”, drugs, whatever).

And the most arrogant, presumptuous, imperious of the lot is Gove. His neo-Con attitudes are alleged to have spited the formidable William Hague, who seems to refer to the Education Department as “the Foreign Office across the street”. He went, as one account more gutter-sniping than the BBC would have it “apeshit“, when the Commons backed off from a Syrian involvement.

Remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything 

That seems to be from Captain William Winde (1642-1722), architect of what was there before Buckingham Palace, and the earliest version of the Oliver Cromwell remark to Sir Peter Lely.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education,

Thanks to Mike Nicholson (see top of this post), there is now a neat, literary and Oxonian parallel for Gove:

‘ … Ho, ho! I am The Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad!’ He got so puffed up with conceit that he made up a song as he walked in praise of himself, and sang it at the top of his voice, though there was no one to hear it but him. It was perhaps the most conceited song that any animal ever composed.

The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!

Finally, our title for today: the collective for a group of toads is a “knot”.

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Filed under Conservative Party policy., education, Independent, Literature, Michael Gove, Observer, pubs, Quotations, reading, Steve Bell

Who owns Pythagoras?

Or photosynthesis? Or 9 x 7 = 63?

Daft, isn’t it?

Then we hit upon this, from Stephanie McCurry, in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

It has become increasingly difficult to say anything new about the American Civil War or even just to tell a different tale … [with] … a marketplace with seemingly inexhaustible demand for another version of the familiar story and the understandable desire of experts to shape public history.

As a well-bred Belfast girl, Professor McCurry will know all about the problem of who owns history. And that ‘history’ is not just a recital of Great Dead White Men.

The lustre of lucre

Note, though, she also brings in the commercial aspect: the gurus who have cornered the media market in their particular expertise. Tudors without Starkey? Unthinkable! The last word on Hitler? Well, Kershaw must be into the quarter-finals!

A couple of weeks on from the Old Vic production, Malcolm’s mental sound-track goes on full volume:

From Ohio, Mister Thorn
Calls me up from night till morn:
Mister Thorn once cornered corn and that ain’t hay!
But I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my fashion —
Yes, I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my way!

Read between Cole Porter’s lines, and Lois would do anything for her Great White Men.

More hay

So, this afternoon, there was Malcolm at the old-reliable London Pride in the Famous Royal Oak (well, it’s famed within a quarter-mile of Muswell Hill’s St James’s Lane). He has Professor McCurry flitting about his consciousness when he reaches the Comment & Debate page of the Guardian, and another contender for Ms Lane’s transient affections:

Harvardian Ferguson
Says I’m really quite très bonne:
If that’s the Harvard ton, and he’s really on … Okay!

… well, mainly on his own status and importance. As here:

It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

Only someone living in a dreaming Oxonian spire could be unaware of how badly this has turned out, despite the best efforts of thousands of hard-working teachers. I know because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history. 

The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure. It runs counter to the advice I gave Gove by being much too prescriptive. The 34 topics to be covered by pupils between the ages of seven and 14 already read a bit like chapter titles and, if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook (even if it’s written by Simon Schama).

Nothing like putting the boot (alongside a personal puff) in, Niall!

The rest of the piece has at least three other conditional clauses (if … if … If), four rhetorical questions, and rather more subjective first person singulars than is truly tasteful.

Yet, Ferguson has a point

It isn’t that history doesn’t sell. As Prof Steph (see above) opened that TES review:

Last December, thousands of Americans filed into cinemas to watch Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. While Congress was stuck in its usual deadlock, a disgusted public was momentarily delivered by the large-screen image of a heroic figure and a heroic America. As the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed and slavery abolished, people cried. They applauded.

Meanwhile, as both main UK channels (and many others) exploit shamelessly, costume drama and a bit of pseudo-history writ small (Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife) put bums on family sofas. Rescuing ‘Richard III’ (perhaps) from under the Nissans and Fords of the Leicester car-park played a PR blinder.

So a kind of “history” excites, enthuses, entertains. What is ‘taught’ in school fails miserably by comparison.

But what should it be? Let’s try and decode Ferguson:

If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint. As Hunter rightly says, it’s not just the defective content of the old national curriculum that is the problem. It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

and (this is the on-line version, [not all of which made it into print]):

Among other things, the national curriculum explicitly aims to ensure that all pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires”; that they “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”; and that they “understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims”.

[At key stage 1, children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace. At key stage 2, they will study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome.] As for “the essential chronology of Britain’s history”, to which Evans and Priestland object so strongly, it is a model of political correctness: not only Mary Seacole makes the cut, but also Olaudah Equiano – hardly escapees from Our Island Story.

What is missing there is: who owns history?

For those “basic concepts” are intensely and inescapably partial and ideological. Try a couple of thought experiments:

  • Reconcile Cromwellian England into an approved primary-school perception of monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.
  • And how does the average eight- or ten-year-old meaningfully study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome? In the Goveian world-scheme, were Greece and Rome essentially slave-societies, or is the slavery thing a mere incidental to the cultural glories?

Docking churchWhat sticks in Malcolm’s craw is, about the only time Roman slavery cropped up at Wells County Primary School, it involved Pope Gregory I and his Non Angli, sed angeli. Which may feature as every-window-tells-a-story in St Mary, Docking, as elsewhere, but as far as a critical observer can determine is as verifiable as Star Trek.  And, no, it’s not in Bede.

Two remaining issues

They’re in Ferguson, and implicit in the more cerebral McCurry:

  • What is the authentic ‘scheme’ (which is what — in any sense of the word — a syllabus amounts to) for that overview of English and European history? Is it Anglocentric or Eurocentric? At the age of fifteen Malcolm switched from GCE “English and European history” to Irish Leaving Certificate “History”; and it was a painful re-appraisal, indeed.
  • What is Ferguson’s gold standard of ‘historical knowledge’? Can he kindly provide, as a solid example, one single, absolute, indisputable, uncoloured ‘fact’? For, were he to do so, a whole phalanx of equally-eminent ‘historians’ would happily exhibit how that ‘fact’ could be, and has been ‘spun’. As Malcolm’s pert Young Piece never fails to repeat, a historical ‘fact’ is one which has been cited by a quantum (say, four) of historians. And a ‘historian’ is … precisely how qualified?

End piece

Consider, then, how Stephanie McCurry, in her shrewd Ulster way, presents ‘values’  rather than certainties, a basis of ‘interpretation’ rather than Ferguson’s ‘facts’, humanely and self-effacingly, warning but with a populist touch, and so concludes her extended review:

Civil War history is a growth industry. For authors, the opportunities are great, but so are the temptations — to repetition, over-reaching and jockeying for market share. There are valuable new interpretations emerging from the field, including a focus on the Civil War as a humanitarian crisis, and there are important voices cautioning against an embrace of war stories as the romanticisation of war itself. But in the fever of sesquicentennial commemoration nothing sells quite like President Lincoln and the war for emancipation. It makes the fantasy of Django Unchained to make the public focus even for a minute on the other America, the one that for so long had no problem with holding people as slaves.

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Filed under Comment is Free, education, Guardian, History, Ian Kershaw, Michael Gove, Niall Ferguson, Norfolk, Times Literary Supplement

Mind how you Gove!

No, not the Singing Postman (of whom Malcolm has writ), but what may be going on behind the educational arras.

Watching Guido Fawkes’s recent bleatings, he may be onto something.

There is an on-going spat between Toby Helm ( a decent small-l “liberal” journo at the Observer) and the all-mighty Goveian Empire at the Department of Education. In such contexts, think Gove as Tarkin and his Death Star.

It looks as if:

  1. The MinEduc Spads (an Orwellian reference there, please note) were let off the leash to harass Helm. For reference, the SpAds at the Department of Education have form. One is diabolically rude and arrogant, the other destroys the evidence. For the record,  they are (or, as of the next few days,were):
    • Dominic Cummings;
    • Henry de Zoete.
  2. When that assault failed, heavy infantry, in the form of the redoubtable Sarah Vine, was deployed.

Sarah Vine? Oh, you know:

Oh Minister, what toe-curling secrets will your wife reveal about you next? His terrible driving. His love of scented baths. Is there ANYTHING writer Sarah Vine won’t disclose about life with Britain’s Education Secretary

 This one will run and run. Tomorrow’s Observer may be worth the read. Oh, look! here it is!

Run, do not walk, to this spat-fest!

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Filed under education, Guido Fawkes, Michael Gove, Observer, sleaze., Tories.