Michael Gove’s honourable ambition for Britain

Michael Gove's political future is under a degree of uncertainty, but he remains ambitious: not so much for himself but for his vision of Britain

What now for Michael Gove?
Tom Gallagher
On 8 June 2014 21:20

The large parts of the media that run a mile from investigating attempts by religious radicals to systematically push anti-western religious ideologies in British schools obtained a windfall this weekend.

In the run up to the publication of an investigation by Ofsted, the ministry of education’s school inspectorate, into what has been happening in a string of Birmingham schools, two ministers have been locked in what much of the media is describing as a personal power struggle.

Education minister Michael Gove has reportedly been unhappy at the casual long-term approach of the Home Office – led since 2010, by Theresa May – to hardline Islamist indoctrination in religiously mixed areas with a large concentration of Muslims.

After he briefed against Charles Farr, a senior official in the Home office prominently associated with the minimalist response, one of May’s closest advisors, Fiona Cunningham, released private correspondence between the Home Secretary and Michael Gove to the Times on Tuesday night.

She has been sacked after an investigation by the cabinet secretary and Gove has been required to apologise to Farr who just happens to be the long-term partner of May’s loyal adjutant.

The media does not need to stretch matters to describe this collision as a blow-up reminiscent of a power struggle in a royal Tudor court between ambitious aspirants and their entourages. In other words, salon politics at their nastiest and most inconsequential.

Except that Gove himself has foresworn any leadership ambitions whereas May appears to have a campaign team in the wings and has been unable to resist displaying naked ambition whenever Cameron appeared to falter in the gloomy economic times from 2012 into 2013.

He is committed to making a profound difference in education where he has been in charge for over four years and not merely use the position as a trampoline to climb into a more senior post. In a speech which he gave at an event held by the Policy Exchange think-tank just as the storm was about to burst, he explained why he believed that improvements in education were indispensable for giving disadvantaged children in particular a real chance in life.

He did not shrink from arguing that his efforts to raise standards and confront mediocrity in teaching and educational management had a moral purpose.

He has wrong-footed his Labour opposite number, Tristram Hunt, who has tried to discredit his ideas and prop up a failed educational establishment with increasingly desperate claims and rhetoric. He himself is from a disadvantaged background, adopted as a baby and brought up in an Aberdeen household by loving foster-parents who nurtured his talent.

Gove may represent a safe Surrey seat and may have worked in journalism at the top-end of the profession. But he is still very much an outsider in the nepotistic and incestuous world of Westminster politics and appears rather proud of that fact.

It is quite possible that serious differences of approach in handling the threat posed by a heavily politicised version of religion in schools are mainly what lie behind a confrontation that is unusual in its intensity and in the fall-out that has resulted.

The complacency in Mrs May’s department may have been thrown into sharp relief by the reaction, on April 14th, of Chris Sims, chief constable of the West Midlands Police to the announcement that a fellow policeman, would be heading the investigation into 25 Birmingham schools where there were fears of extremist political infiltration.

Peter Clarke was a former national coordinator for counter-terrorism but instead of welcoming the expertise of an ex-colleague, he went on the airwaves to declare that Mr Clarke’s appointment is “desperately unfortunate” because “people will inevitably draw unwarranted conclusions from his former role as national coordinator for counter-terrorism”.

Sims paid lip-service to an “open and inclusive education for all children in Birmingham,” but he cast doubt on the need for a policeman’s expertise to ensure that such an education was indeed a reality rather than a pious aspiration.

His reluctance to probe, never mind confront, nefarious activities in some of Birmingham’s schools has been echoed by some municipal leaders as well as senior Anglicans. A harsh judgment would be that they are prepared to risk the Balkanisation of their city and imperil the passage into mature adulthood of thousands of children as long as they can continue to inhabit a bubble where platitudes and mutual back-slapping are the order of the day for local elites.

In the wake of the publication of the Ofsted report, It would be rational and refreshing if warring ministers and police officials could close ranks and deal calmly but resolutely with the present danger.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that Gove’s disquiet springs from the realisation that across Whitehall and deep into Westminster, the preference of too many in the elite is to go through the motions of doing something and allow problems to accumulate.

Gove’s own political future is now shrouded in a degree of uncertainty. But he appears ambitious not so much for himself but for his vision of a Britain where the next generation enjoys freedoms thanks to a vigilant and reform-minded state acting in its interests.

Mrs May is a rather more conventional politician; at least this clash ensures that if she rises further up the greasy poll, she will be measured by her ability to respond to the grave challenges that led to Ofsted’s unprecedented investigation of conditions in the schools of Britain’s second city.

If that is the case, Mr Gove will have done the state and the citizens who pay for the upkeep of its elite, a signal service.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford and the author of Europe’s Path to Crisis (Manchester Universty Press September 2014)

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