First post in ages and it's about Michael Gove. Marbury's muse works in mysterious ways.
I am prompted by this piece in the New Statesman, by the normally thoughtful and perceptive Rafael Behr. It's a commentary on the bizarre, oversold, astoundingly pompous Observer "exposé" of some Twitter spat I can't even be bothered to relate. (As journalists spend more and more time on Twitter, they are becoming more convinced of its centrality to national life).
Behr goes on to express his concern that the Department of Education under Gove has become a "law unto itself". His evidence for this is that Gove's special advisers are loyal to him and boast of their independence from the department. Behr goes on to say, somewhat confusingly, that Gove has "broken" the entire department to his will, as one would, presumably, break in a wild stallion (I'm sorry if you're now thinking about Gove, topless and sweating, disciplining a horse.)
Shockingly, according to Behr, Gove is using his department to force through his political agenda. My God. A cabinet minister, elected on a clear manifesto, is getting his civil servants to implement it? Why on earth isn't this a bigger scandal?
For his crimes, Behr calls Gove a Bolshevik, which is rough stuff coming from a New Statesman political editor. He concludes that Gove is in "ruthless pursuit of his own personal revolution." Blimey. Beria was ruthless. As for "personal revolution" - what does that actually mean? It's not like Gove is forcing schools to put his picture in every classroom (though this is the the kind of thing he's regularly accused of by certain parts of the press). He is simply doing the stuff he's been saying he was going to do ever since he became shadow education secretary. New Statesman readers may not like it, but then they haven't liked much about the last thirty years (joke. Joke!).
But this is mild stuff. Every day brings a new anti-Gove rant, and one of the odd things about them is how ill-informed they are, how smug they are in their own ignorance. You often hear it remarked, as if it's an accepted truth, that Gove has a backward-looking, evidence-free, unthinkingly reactionary agenda. But Gove is more abreast of current policy debates than most of his critics. Scholars like E.D Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, influential in the States, have been arguing, from different directions, and with a great deal of evidence, that, for instance, knowledge is a pre-condition of so-called "skills" like creativity, and that tests are a good way, not just of assessing progress, but inspiring pupils to greater efforts. If you can find, from the last couple of decades, a better argued, more evidenced, more cogently expressed case for a policy agenda than this then I'd like to see it.
What is it about Gove that bends even sensible minds out of joint; that drives intelligent people absolutely batty with rage? His programme is really just a continuation of the last government's, just speeded up. I don't remember the left burning effigies of Alan Johnson.
There's some weird personal stuff going on that I can't even begin to explain (much like Blair, the very sight of him seems to make some people's eyes flash red and the green pen to jump out of its scabbard).
But I think the deeper problem is that Gove came into government to get big things done, and he is doing them. We're not used to that in this country. We find it downright offensive. And that explains a lot about the mess we're in.