Conservative Party

Michael Gove doesn't want to be PM: he wants meritocracy and freedom


“Michael Gove won’t admit it, but tonight’s EU debate is his first audition for the Tory leadership,” wrote Asa Bennett in the Telegraph. Except he didn’t because it wasn’t. He isn’t interested in the job, and nor, more importantly, is Mrs Gove interested in him getting the job. The Justice Secretary has made it clear that doesn’t “have what it takes” to be Prime Minister. Indeed, he has previously offered to sign a piece of parchment in his own blood saying he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. Sarah Vine would doubtless prick his thumb and suck out enough blood for her husband to set his seal.

Michael Gove is a rare beast in modern politics: he has a philosophy and expresses it with conviction. And he doesn’t merely express it; he formulates radical policy and transforms his departments of state with revolutionary zeal. He revels in smashing otiose, feeble and flawed systems in the firm belief that something better will emerge. And he does so with frequent appeals to the philosophies of Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, Michael Oakeshott and John Stuart Mill. To these he adds Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume and James Monboddo – the founders of the Scottish Enlightenment ideal of the Democratic Intellect, which underpins everything he argues for. He is a true liberal – a Whig – contending against those same vested ‘elite’ Tory interests which so preoccupied Margaret Thatcher, and which ultimately brought her down.

As Education Secretary, Michael Gove was concerned to ensure that all children, from whatever background, might receive a good education at the right school for each, and that all schools should be fit for purpose in order that children might become rounded, whole and active citizens and live a virtuous life. He wanted ignorance banished, genius recognised, industry rewarded and for common sense to prevail. For him, it is the democratically expressed feelings of free citizens which smashes the bureaucratic control and establishment power of the elites. It is Burkean “little platoons” which most effectively contend against the immovable, aloof, privileged and unaccountable establishment ‘blob’.

The Gove vision of government is one that is meritocratic – by those who know how, rather than those who inherit – and it is free and adequate education which liberates the potential of the individual to participate in society. Mindful of his own upbringing – through adoption and economic disadvantage – Gove’s philosophy is inextricably fused with themes of social justice. It is not that parents, headteachers and school sponsors become unrestricted and that central government has no role; it is that government intervenes only in proportion to the necessity to limit social injustice, hence his vision to replicate the ethos of the private school in public education, because the entire history of education has pitched a privileged elite against the masses.

Michael Gove doesn’t want to climb the greasy pole for personal gain; nor does he want power for its own sake. He wants democracy, individual freedom and organic fraternity. He wants universal equality of opportunity and for citizens to be sufficiently educated to make informed choices in order to seize life’s opportunities. It is, for him, a theological mission in the emancipatory tradition of ecclesial communities in pursuit of justice: he is a liberation theologian. It is why he embraced and implemented more ‘Big Society’ localism than Cameron ever did. It is why he devolved power from local authorities to headteachers, and why he is now devolving power from the Department of Justice to prison governors. Gove trusts the knowledge of professionals and the instincts of the people: he is a Whiggish devolver of power. Cameron knows what is best: he is a Tory centraliser of power. There is in this tension the ages-old ‘split’ within the Conservative Party, which has historically morphed its political character to the philosophy of its leader. Cameron’s patronising paternalism is not Gove’s inheritance. Both may cry freedom, but only Gove has the disposition to cultivate the agency, and only he has the patience to brook the vicissitudes of personal autonomy and hold conversations with cooperative agents. In his own words from a 2013 speech to the Social Market Foundation:

I began tonight by arguing that for those of us who are political progressives it is also necessary to be educational conservatives. And there is a sense in which all great education has a conservative element – we wish to pass on – protected and if possible enhanced – the whole repertoire of human accomplishment to our children. But while I am proud in many ways to be a conservative I think – in a spirit of proper candour – that I should actually come out and accept that this Government’s educational philosophy is not really conservative at all – but rather uncompromisingly radical. Because conservatives have always tended to suspect that many of the things which need to be protected from generation to generation – the Royal Opera House, the House of Lords, the Bar, Oxford High Table, agreeable homes with lovely views over the Downs, marriage, the bench of bishops, Lord Lieutenancies and Tate Gallery directorships – can only be protected if they’re enjoyed by a minority. I don’t look at the world that way. I think the things we need to protect and enhance – a love of literature, pride in our history, scientific curiosity, beautiful written English, innovative and creative mathematical thinking, joy in discovery, colleges and universities, liberal learning and openness to the world, female emancipation and social mobility – are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible.

The bureaucratic elite of the European Union embodies everything that Michael Gove detests. It is illiberal, interfering, anti-democratic, centralising and inefficient. It is not organic and diffuse, but engineered and coercive. Gove yearns for diversity, competition, liberty, accountability, transparency and choice in a system where iron sharpens iron. The EU pursues uniformity and corporatism in a system which smothers innovation, oppresses the poor and squanders wealth. It is a chain, a yoke, the meridian ‘blob’, and Michael Gove is approaching the zenith of his system-smashing nonconformity.