Coffee House

The ‘Stop Boris’ Hunger Games: an interview with Michael Gove

12 December 2012

On Monday, I interviewed Michael Gove for the new Christmas double issue of The Spectator. It’s out tomorrow but here’s a longer version, arranged in subheadings so CoffeeHousers can skip over bits they’re not interested in.

This is the picture that stands behind Michael Gove’s desk: an imposing McCarthy-era poster which saying: ‘Sure, I want to fight Communism – but how?’ In their less charitable moments, Tories may argue that his Department of Education is as good a place as any to start. The strength of its grip over state schools has long been the subject of political laments and Yes, Minister sketches. Confronting the educational establishment was too much for the Blair reformers and even the Thatcher government. But Gove, the least likely of political warriors, finally appears to be making progress.

The coming battle over teachers’ pay

‘Some things I never imagined we’d be able to accomplish alone, let alone in a coalition government, so relatively quickly,’ he says, when we meet in his office. His Academies Act has allowed most English secondary schools to be freed from government control. His next mission is to rewrite the rules for teachers’ pay, replacing the pay-by-time-served system with pay on merit.

This would give head teachers the power to poach a brilliant maths teacher, for example – or sack a bad one. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, but for the teaching unions it is nothing short of a declaration of war.

‘The trade unions have regarded this as their apostles’ creed,’ says Gove. “Look at the way they justify their existence to members. On the one hand, they justify their existence because they provide protection if you face unfair dismissal or an unfair allegation.  Hopefully, employment law protects you from unfair dismissal and there are other ways – including a marvellous new organisation called Edapt – which can provide you with the insurance that you need.  Okay, what else does a trade union do?  Well it guarantees to a significant part of the profession that they will automatically get a pay increase simply by staying there, there is automatic or near automatic pay progression at every stage.’

This national pay bargaining, he says, is an insult to the skill of teachers.’If you treat everyone as though they’re merely an interchangeable widget in a machine, then that robs the teaching profession of its sacred role.’ And he is supported by some unions. ‘The National Association of Head Teachers has welcomed these proposals because they know that we’re expecting them to drive school improvement. They’re thinking to themselves: ‘The only way we can measure up is if we reward good staff. So, thank heavens the government is giving us the freedom to meet that responsibility’.’

The National Union of Teachers is rather less enthusiastic and is muttering about a nationwide strike. Gove spent 18 months leading up to this point – is he prepared for the battle royal that the NUT may now attempt to wage?’ I hope I am,’ he says.”And I don’t believe that it’s a winning argument for the trades unions to say: ‘We do not want to pay good teachers more.’

Les Ebdon and the soft bigotry of low expectations

It’s not his only battle. Another is persuading state schools to prepare pupils for top universities – but Les Ebdon, whom Vince Cable appointed as director of the Office for Fair Access, sees things differently. He recently  omplained about the ‘dreadful snobbery’ in some schools ‘about whether people go to university’. When I mention this to Gove, he suddenly goes quiet – in the way of a man moved beyond apoplexy. He walks over to his desk and picks up what he describes as ‘my new favourite book’: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which draws on hundreds of published and unpublished memoirs to show how the poor once educated themselves. What happened next was an unusual part of the interview, and perhaps worth reproducing in full.

‘Jonathan Rose [the author] who is a left wing academic, says I think it is more interesting to look at what the readers have done who lead or have led mainstream lives at work for Britain.  So he has got a quotation here from a Durham miner at the age of 14 who said that, this is 14, Like a Fennimore Cooper Indian I was tireless and silent once I started reading – Walter Scott, Charles Read, George Elliot, the Bronte’s, later on Hardy, Hugo, Dumas and scores of others.  Then came Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton and the line of poets generally.  I was hardly sixteen when I picked up James Thomson’s Seasons and Stead’s Penny Poets.  I wept for the shepherd who died in the snow.”  A 16 year old Durham miner.  I.R.P. Leader, James Booth Glazier claimed that, he was talking about what working people should read, “Bunion, Burns, Shelley, Byron, Aeschylus, Dante, Schiller and Les Miserables.”  Then … Dorothy Burnham lived her life in care, she quotes Keats, Tennyson and Arnold, “Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous.  I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written especially for me.  Although I spoke in my backstreet urchin accents of Les Belles Dames Sans Merci, yet in Keats’s poem I seem to sense some eternal ritual of eternal love and Tennyson’s Mort D’Arthur bowled me over.  The poets helped me escape the demands of communal living” – she’s in care – “which now at 13 were beginning to be intolerable to me.”‘

Gove was growing steadily more angry as he read. By this time, his fury was in a crescendo:

‘So you’ve got a 13 year old in care in 1928 who is reading Keats and Tennyson and some people say that it’s snobbery for children to go to university. It is snobbery to say that working class people cannot achieve in the same way as others and I’ve had it up to here with people saying oh don’t expect too much of them, these are high-falutin’ expectations.  In 1940 the average number of books that a working class boy would read is six every month, 72 a year, working class boys.  When I said we should have 50 books being read a year people said: that’s outrageous.  The truth is that we’ve lost the level of expectation that we used to have about what people were capable of achieving. They don’t have attitudes like that in East Asia or South Korea.  No one is going to say in South Korea, ‘what dreadful snobbery that you go to university’.  The last person who said it was dreadful snobbery to go to university was Rick Santorum in America and we regarded that as a view of the Rampithecan right, like the Scopes Trial all over again. The truth is that more people should go to elite universities and if you look at these schools where the expectations that it’s snobbish, don’t get above yourself – no!’

I had no idea how to follow up on this. Gove had been slowly reaching a crescendo: the crosser he gets, the more likely he is to use words like “Rampithecan” or refer to the Stopes Trial. So what flicked his anger switch? This, what the Republicans call the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has long been one of Gove’s ancient bugbears. Even while a  journalist he was saying comprehensive education was the ultimate “betrayal of the working class”. But most graduates today leave university without reading Hugo, Tennyson or Dumas – it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been badly educated.

But it could well be that Gove feels some empathy. He, of course, was once the 13-year-old adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger – with his nose doubtless buried deep in Burns, Milton and other books that might contain words like ‘ramapithecan’ and casually refer to the Scopes Trial. His parents, recognizing his talent, forswore holidays so they could afford to send him to private school. Oxford came next, then journalism. He was once my news editor at the Times, where unkind souls declared him too nice – ‘too polite’ – to get very far. He now has the reverse problem. He is tipped for the Tory leadership so regularly that he is running out of ways to rule himself out. (‘I know what it takes to be in that job,’ he told me when I last interviewed him. ‘And I just know that I don’t have it.’)

On winning elections

Claim your gift

But when asked what the Tories must do to win in 2015, he comes forward with what sounds like a personal manifesto. There are Tories, he says, who are concerned with issues like whether ‘we need to have a better ground game in Worcestershire – and that’s great, I’m glad there are people like that. But my approach is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as possible.’

It’s true what Tony Blair said, he says: ‘The right policy is the right politics.’

On Europe

Gove says that being in politics has made him admire Blair more. ‘But with one exception: Europe. I have become more Eurosceptic as a result of having been in government.’

His enmity is born of practical experience, seeing how things like EU procurement law or the ECHR inhibit the capacity of an elected government to deliver on what people want’. And if an ‘in-or-out’ referendum were held tomorrow, how would he vote? ‘It’s a secret ballot,’ he says with a grin.

I try various ways to tempt him into saying something about Europe, but none work. He says, in effect, that he does advise Cameron on this privately and doesn’t want to blow this relationship by talking about Europe on the record. Or, as he puts it,  ‘One of the great privileges of this job is the opportunity to share with him [Cameron] some thoughts from time to time. In that sense, I would never want to circumscribe by saying anything in public about how he should handle any of these issues.’

On Cameron

He will say only that he trusts Cameron, who ‘has the guile and the steel and above all the sense of what is in Britain’s interests’ to negotiate an answer to the European question. Gove heaps praise on Cameron in general, something I’ve heard him do at donors’ dinner parties.

‘There are some Tories who are influenced by their understanding of economics, or by their admiration for particular figures from our past. Some say they are in the Macmillanite tradition, for example. But David doesn’t need to do that: he is just instinctive. There are some who seek to rationalise their writing or their music, and others who just do it naturally. David is the Conservative equivalent of a flair player, someone whose talent is natural.’

On Ed Miliband

But Gove is almost as nice about Ed Miliband.

‘I have a slightly unconventional view on Ed Miliband which is the view that Charles Moore has,’ he says. Watching Andrew Marr show reminded him that ‘David Miliband is actually a chillier figure’.

‘Ed has a warmth about him and a sense of humour, which means I find it difficult to be harsh about him. He’s a nice person, and in politics for the right reasons. I think there is more there and the other thing is I think his politics are very interesting, in that I think that he’s original.  Not a one-off, but one of the reasons that he won Labour’s leadership tace is because he genuinely said: ‘I want to transcend Blair and Brown.’ He had a view, and it is now becoming clear what that view is.’

But Miliband’s recent embrace of Disraeli, Gove says, is revealing.

 ‘In Disraeli, he chose someone as a hero who was a reactionary in the 1870s and a reactionary in the 1840s. In the same way as Disraeli romanticised the past, so does Ed Miliband. He romanticises the Crosland model of comprehensives and the Attlee era of austerity… There’s not that sense of inevitability in Ed’s onward victory and there’s not a sense that, notwithstanding the intellectually fascinating argument that he’s trying to run about Labour and social solidarity, you don’t get the sense that there is any Labour policy that is put forward where you think they’ve stolen a march on the government or they’ve helped to define the future.’

Gove’s ‘holiday romance’ with Laws

Gove has more kind words for the Liberal Democrats, with whom he enjoys governing. I ask if, come the election, he will be uncomfortable with the idea of Conservatives in Somerset trying to bring down his deputy, David Laws.

We’re not thinking about the election. If we did, then that might lead to both of us having to face something difficult. So, rather like in a holiday romance, you enjoy it. If you’re getting on well, then you live in the moment and have as good a time as possible.’

And at the end of the coalition?

‘Obviously, if you love someone, set them free. But at the moment I’m living in the moment – without thinking ahead.’

The ‘Stop Boris’ Hunger Games

I ask him to think ahead to the next Tory leadership race: which of his two young, ambitious deputies would be best to challenge Boris? Matt Hancock or Liz Truss?  “I don’t think either of them would want to challenge Boris because Boris has said that he doesn’t want to be an MP again. Boris may run for a third term [as Mayor], which I have suggested to him he should.

But if Boris did run? ‘You are almost inviting me to choose Hunger Games-style,’ he says. So he does. Truss, he says, is – like Thatcher – a working mother, so she “has had a tougher road than I have, and therefore my admiration for her is proportionately greater. But Matt is a human dynamo as well. He is helping the Prime Minister for PMQs, helping the Chancellor as he always has, serving two masters and me and Vince and I think both of us, I certainly think he is a brilliant minister.

He doesn’t say it, but this means Hancock is working for four masters. But Gove then tells me I have missed out a minister in the ‘Taking On Boris’ Hunger Game.

‘Ed Timpson could outpace either of them… he won the hearts of everyone here when we had our Department for Education’s Got Talent contest last Thursday where he sang Wild Thing by the Troggs with all the appropriate gestures and people were swooning everywhere, so charisma?  He’s got it.’

Gove’s Holidays, Catholicism

He is about to take his first ever winter holiday abroad, taking his family to a ski resort in Colorado. They’ll all be going to church on Christmas Day. When I ask about rumours that he may convert to Catholicism, he laughs loudly.”I think that politicians should never talk about their own religious faith.’ And rumours that he is selling his London flat, thus disbanding the Cameroon Notting Hill clan, are unfounded. He put his London house on the market, he says, ”just to test the water’, and admits he is ‘not keen to move’.

And taking the axe to the Department of Education

He may, however, want to move the Department of Education.

‘By the end of this parliament, we’ll have been able to reduce numbers in the department by more than a quarter.’ And the office itself?’ It’s a very handsome building, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a school on the first and ground floor,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of other government buildings that we can move to.’

So head teachers will soon have the power to poach, hire and fire. And Gove will have taken charge of Europe’s largest school bureaucracy, unclenched its fist, stripped away many of its powers, evicted its staff, then opened a free school in its old HQ as if to make a point. Quite an achievement for a first-time minister. No wonder so many in Westminster are wondering what he will do as a follow-up.

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Show comments
  • alan mills

    Is there a suitable word for the hysterical sight of a right wing journalist fawning over a right wing politician? This Secretary of State for Education has ignored research, statistics and professional opinion while developing systems of governance and examinations for schools which deny the majority of learners the opportunity to succeed. The country needs highly skilled workers but Gove’s examination “reforms” will make the acquisition of these skills less likely. A disaster now seeking to alienate teachers even further.

    • eyebeams

      I doubt it will – I am seeing a whole new tranche of senior leaders who are ignoring what Gove says and are running highly successful schools; who have high self-esteem and who are determined to be focused on their students first and foremost – most of them run outstanding schools and Gove is seen, in the main, as another irrelevance and distraction; they are forming their own professional development networks regardless of the poorly funded schemes that are in place at present.

      In fact a pitiful amount is sent on CPD for teachers and Ofsted is a cheap, purely summative assessment and politically useful as the occasional wheel upon which to break several butterflies. They don’t particularly like Gove as he is seen as interfering with them getting on with their job.

      Gove’s language has a tendency to the “lapidary” as criticised by Robert Jay Q.C. – I daresay he’s passionate about what he believes in but, in the main, he is regarded as hopelessly out of touch. If he denies teachers agency to do what they do, successfully, then he will be in for trouble however. I hope he is not that dense.

  • Christian

    If gove is the answer then we’re more fucked than I though

  • Rockin Ron

    Thank you for giving me so many laughs in this article, Fraser. Wonderful stuff, full of lies, of course. Michael Gove is an expenses fiddler who should not even be if office. But thanks to having some good connections, pals like Fraser to write puff pieces and reliance on people forgetting his thieving behaviour, Mr Gove is presented as a future leader of his party! Brilliant! He also goes out of his way to praise Mr Cameron, which is akin to Himmler praising Hitler – they are both in this together, thick as thieves. Why, the other day Mr Cameron even recalled liking a pop group because his daughther told him to do so, and this was even before she was born. They lie so much, so often, that they begin to believe it. These people are professional con artists who are destroying this country. Just look at Mr Cameron’s mates – Brooks and Coulson, now awaiting trial. I hope that’s how it will end for Cameron and Gove, couldn’t happen to nicer people.

  • barbie

    I don’t mean to be rude, but please, the glasses don’t suit you Mr Gove, change them. They make you look older than you are, is there a reason for that? Otherwise a fair interview. He has some good ideas, especially on Europe, which I wished he had explored more. As for a future leader, not to sure about that, he may be to nice, and you need nerves of steel and the guts to speak up with detirmination. May be education is the right place for him, but there again once the teachers start complaining he’ll need to toughen up.

  • Daniel Maris

    What an irrelevance this is beside the reality of mass immigration which is – not so slowly – destroying our society. Is that hyperbole? It would be nice to think so, but when we look at what is happening I don’t think it is an exaggeration.

    Just take Gove’s area of responsibility – education. In London we needed an extra 75,000 primary school places in ONE year. That is a direct impact of immigration. A huge infrastructure cost, but then we have the issue of children with different language backgrounds trying to learn effectively. Virtually impossible. Education is becoming simply another emergency service.

    Govian optimism is all very nice, but sadly misplaced. Lots of his “free schools” are being turned into religious education factories designed to propagate illiberal, mysoginist teachings that are being imported along with the many millions of immigrants.

    Cameron has done nothing effective to stop mass immigration. I suspect we are seeing now the end of the Tories as a political force.

    • telemachus

      But think of the benefit of moulding these go getting incomers

    • Ron Todd

      I wouldn’t be suprised if before long it is the ‘human right’ of every immigrant to be taught in a school that teaches exclusively in their own language, with English as a foreign language with no more status than any other language.

  • MirthaTidville

    Interesting interview…Michael Gove comes across as firstly a proper Conservative. Someone who has a set of beliefs and knows that his time will soon be here.

    • Coffeehousewall

      He’s not a proper conservative at all. If he was he certainly wouldn’t be in the cabinet. And if he is in the cabinet he is certainly not a proper conservative. The fact that he is not merely on favour of ‘gay marriage’ but will campaign deliberately on that one subject tells us all we need to know.

    • Chris lancashire

      OK, the Tory Grandees aren’t plotting because they know that Cameron is, increasingly, their best chance of a further five year term. There, told you.

      • MirthaTidville

        Well I suppose someone has to believe it, but Gove is in reality their only hope of turning things around. A lot of Conservative voters I know have left and wont return as long as Cameron is there. He is despised. Sorry

  • McRobbie

    Great to read more about what drives gove to sort out our badly overrated education system, clearly he’s determined to stamp out the mediocrity that pervades all of left whinge “thinking”. And the teachers who describe gove as a privileged tory would not believe that a fish processors son from aberdeen could ever think right wing thoughts. There are more tory believers in the so called working class than the left would like to accept, they believe so because they know first hand that the real world requires people to work hard and be paid according to their effort … but look at the number of privileged and protected who pretend to be socialist, milliband, balls, millionaires all, but they like that image because it allows them to put on a facade of being nice and considerate… whereas they just want power and our money to spend on their pet projects and their voters, the unionised public sector. Its the nasty left not the nice left I see when I see millie and co.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    There are some Tories who are influenced by their understanding of
    economics, or by their admiration for particular figures from our past.
    Some say they are in the Macmillanite tradition, for example. But David
    doesn’t need to do that: he is just instinctive. There are some who seek
    to rationalise their writing or their music, and others who
    just do it naturally. David is the Conservative equivalent of a flair
    player, someone whose talent is natural.’


    I’m imagining the Govites sitting around musing: “Which is the biggest satirical slap we can take at Cameron, and still get it printed by one of the Speccie teenagers?”

    One of them won a bet with this quote. Had to be.

    • salieri

      A fine perception. The more you think about it, the worse it sounds. A masterpiece of damning with loud praise.

    • Rockin Ron

      Couldn’t agree more – nearly fell off my chair laughing when I read that bit.

  • Simon Mason

    Did you find time to ask him about the Finnish schools miracle? You know, where kids don’t start formal schooling until they’re seven, have no standardised testing, no private schools, no homework , no parental choice and come top in all the rankings for the best education system in the world.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yep. That is always a useful corrective. You could add that they have much smaller class sizes as well.

      • Helen Johnston

        I could also point out that their teachers get a full hour planning and assessment time for every hour they teach. In the UK, teachers get 6 minutes and that had to be fought for tooth and nail.

  • Edward Sutherland

    The smug photograph doesn’t do him any favours. Was it taken just after he’d come out in favour of gay marraige?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      He looks like Austen Powers there.

      “Do I make you randy, baby?!?”

    • telemachus

      He and Hunt are both a bit too pleased with themselves
      With nothing to be pleased about
      Worse than Gay Marriage he gave the 2 most important departments to, as you say smug prats

      • Chris lancashire

        Ooh no. They’ve lots to be pleased about. Hunt’s got promoted and just think of all those nice free schools and academies from Gove. No, really, there’s lots to be pleased about.

  • AdemAljo

    What an absolutely outstanding paragon of parliamentary society.

    In all my rantings and ravings about the animosity I hold towards Leftists, great and small, I must admit that after reading this article, I realise the best way to grind a Leftist’s patience, until it is but a shrivelled and scrunched up ball, about to fall away in the recesses of its – the Leftists’s – mind, is to actually show benevolence towards them. Kindness. A sense of familiarity and ‘understanding’.

    I am quite convinced that there is nothing a Leftist in this country hates more than a Tory successfully using their own narcissistic, petulant and patronising views towards them.


    Now, what does Telemachus have to say? I’m absolutely on tenterhooks.

    • telemachus

      On Pay-If he follows through there will be action

      Mebbe not strikes but withdrawal of cooperation

      Remember Newham and Tower Hamlets

      In October the head at Stratford Academy in Newham had written to teachers asking them to confirm that they will not take part in the action. short of a strike. refusing to take part in certain duties, such as some lesson observations or mock Ofsted inspections.

      They were told to sign the letters and return them And if not face a pay cut.

      Teachers at a nearby school in Tower Hamlets recently struck and won
      over a similar case. Their head wanted them to take part in a mock Ofsted that
      they were boycotting—but backed down after they threatened to strike.
      If he proceeds he is in for an exam summer of discontent

      • Chris lancashire

        Sad, pathetic response to a genuinely generous, thoughtful politician who is doing his best for children’s education.

        • telemachus

          The first rule of management is to motivate the workforce
          He castigated belittles and alienates
          And he looks like a lizard

      • Swiss Bob

        From the media coverage it is clear that journalists don’t understand what a ‘troll’ is but you’d think that with all the comments decrying journalists ignorance on the subject one might have thought they’d at least do a Wiki search to enlighten themselves.

        Do you give these cunts (as previously discussed they are a collective) licence to destroy threads because you are ignorant, or is it that they post from Labour HQ and therefore you feel obliged to publish their drivel?

        I’d really like an answer as you are a supposedly conservative journal, not a place I’d have thought one could read moronic far left propaganda.

        • telemachus

          And the relevance to Gove who is trying to destroy the Teaching Profession

    • Roland Butter

      Killing with kindness, eh? The Colonel won’t like that.

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