Michael Gove, the most important and successful Aberdonian politician since, well, since I don’t know actually, is also that rarest of things: a grown-up cabinet minister. He knows the importance of praise. Consider this passage – highlighted by John Rentoul – from a speech he gave on Child Protection this morning:
Just as the Labour Government early in its life felt that teachers needed to be told how to operate – down to the tiniest detail of what should happen in every literacy or numeracy hour – so the Labour Government towards the end of its life felt it had to produce thousands of pages of central Government prescription on social work practice. Both sets of interventions reflected a lack of trust in the frontline.
But the Labour Government – to its credit – recognised that while central prescription of what professionals do every day could, in certain circumstances, lift performance from weak to adequate it very rarely elevated it beyond that. So it gradually shifted its attention to helping teachers improve their practice – by setting up the National College for School Leadership, encouraging teachers in poorer schools to learn from their peers in stronger schools through initiatives such as the London Challenge and the Academy Programme and supporting professional development organisations like the Prince’s Teaching Institute. And – crucially – the last Government helped change perceptions of the profession – and enhance its prestige and self-confidence – by backing charities like Teach First which persuaded the best graduates from the best universities to enter the classroom.
Oddly, as Mr Rentoul reports, these remarks were omitted from the text of the speech published on the Department of Education’s website. Apparently this part of Gove’s speech was deemed “political content”.
Be that as it may the substance of Gove’s remarks is correct. So too is the politics. There is, as we all know, a strong anti-politics sentiment abroad these days. One of the many reasons for this sour sentiment is surely that politicians routinely insult even voters’ intelligence.
The zero sum approach to politics in which everything the other mob did, does or proposes to do is invariably at best stupid and more probably wicked contributes to the public’s not unreasonable To hell with them all mood.
Sensible people appreciate that it is statistically improbable that Labour could be in power for more than a dozen years without doing some good and sensible things. Similarly, sensible people understand that it is unlikely that everything this present government does can be motivated by the worst of intentions.
This is not some soppy plea for consensus or trimming from the middle. It is merely a plea for some measure of proportion. Not everything Labour did was bad; not everything this government does will be bad either.
Gove’s rhetoric admits this and, by being seen to praise the better parts of his predecessors achievements, he positions himself as an adult in a parliament of toddlers. Of course, since Gove is building upon the work of Andrew Adonis he could hardly pretend to be starting from Year Zero. Nevertheless, he shows how a certain generosity coupled with an awareness that no political party is likely to have a monopoly on wisdom can be deployed for useful political advantage.
By conceding that not everything Labour did was wrong Gove implicitly suggests his opponents should grant him the respect of supposing his intentions may be honourable. If they decline to do so then they look small, churlish and narrow-minded. If they do honour Gove’s arguments then, by jove, the argument will then be conducted upon turf of Gove’s choosing. He wins – and by winning I mean advances his agenda – either way.
That’s good politics in the service of good policy. It is depressing to consider how rare this is.