Michael Gove appears to be walking a path separate from any other Coalition cabinet Minister. It’s not that he is necessarily more right-wing or callous than his gruesome peers.
It’s just that in his pronouncements and actions he appears to be more concerned to carve out his own reputation as a peculiarly contrarian scourge of left-liberal Britain than to promote a coherent government programme.
From the hugely expensive and wasteful free school programme to the derided provision of King James bibles to every school in England, Gove often looks like a man ploughing his own lonely and quixotic furrow. The conventional view is that this is part of a studied and calculated plan to bid for the Conservative leadership and that what appears odd to most goes down very well with the Tory base. Certainly he has powerful friends in the media, gets a good press from the Mail and Express, is championed by Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, and is married to a leading Times columnist.
The arrogance and certainty created by this cocoon can, however, be beautifully self-defeating. In his recent broadside against left-wing academics and popular culture for their depiction of the First World War Gove seems to have blown a whistle to which even the dogs refuse to run.
In Gove’s new year article for the Daily Mail attacking what he called “left-wing myths” about the 1914-18 war, Gove was drawing media and popular attention to his obsessions. Hence his decision to blame TV shows and a play, naming ‘Blackadder’, ‘The Monocled Mutineer’ and ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. The result was the sort of widespread press and social media discussion which would not have been generated by an attack on a few left-wing historians.
Gove’s case is that World War One was an entirely just war fought in defence of “the western liberal order” against “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order”. According to the Mail he “reserves his greatest scorn for those who have sought to depict the soldiers as lions led by donkeys”.
Here speaks a man who can’t be bothered to do any research at all before shooting from the hip. The ensuing days saw him reminded of a few facts.
The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was coined by the ultra-right wing historian and maverick Tory politician Alan Clark.
The idea that Britain was wrong to enter the war and should have left the European powers to fight it out is the central argument of Niall Ferguson’s book The Pity of War. Ferguson is the poster-boy of the right. The other popular history of the war written by a right-winger, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914, paints a relentlessly grim picture of the role of British generals. In short the notion that it is only left-wing historians who question the need for the war or the competence of military leaders is as far from the mark as it is possible to be. Even the historians Gove claimed for his side (Margaret McMillan and Gary Sheffield) quickly distanced themselves from him.
Richard Evans, professor of History at Cambridge, appeared in the Independent and Guardian to remind Gove of a few aspects of 1914 which sat uneasily with his simplistic picture of good versus evil.
Prominent among these is the fact that one of Britain’s two allies in the war was despotic Tsarist Russia, whose political order was neither liberal nor democratic. Britain may have been more liberal but even by the standards of the time it was hardly democratic. 40% of men and all women were denied the right to vote in elections.
In Germany, suffrage had been extended to all adult males. That in turn helped to produce the largest socialist party in Europe both in terms of membership and parliamentary representation, the Social Democrats.
There is, of course, a left-right debate about the First World War. It reflects the battle of ideas that took part at the time and rent the growing international socialist movement in two.
The war was a crime and a disgrace not because there was nothing of importance involved or because the generals and politicians were blundering, out-of-touch or incompetent. It was pointless from the perspective of working-class people because it was not liberty, equality or democracy that was being fought for but the spoils of colonialism and empire. 1914-18 was the imperialist war par excellence.
Gove made a basic mistake in assuming that the wisdom of British involvement is a right-left issue. Ferguson, Clark and Hastings, amongst others, passionately criticise British participation largely on the basis that it wasn’t necessary as a means of defending imperial dominance. It could have been avoided or the European powers could have been left to weaken each other. The involvement of Russia led to Communist revolution in the unlikeliest of places, and US intervention left Britain with huge debts to the USA, which would soon replace the British Empire as a world power.
At the time governments and nationalist newspapers tried to sell the First World War as an honourable cause sometimes focusing on “freedom” but more often on alleged war atrocities by the Germans in Belgium (itself an imperialist power of singular cruelty in the Congo). Today, however, right-wing historians analyse the war as an episode in the decline of the British empire. They have different reasons from us for viewing it as a disaster, but they have little time for the empty expedient patriotism of the time. Gove was either too ignorant or too arrogant to understand this. Whichever it was he has been noticeably reluctant to come forward and defend his claims.
Michael Gove remains a powerful and dangerous politician, but it will be a good thing for children, parents and teachers if he is weakened and undermined by this episode.