The ideologue who once influenced David Cameron’s ideas and Tory policy is seeing his political fortunes fade as anti-intellectualism takes hold of Britain
When Michael Gove threw his hat into the ring to become leader of the Conservative party, and potentially Britain’s next prime minister, I felt reminded of a moment of profound anger. Upon commemorating the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the then education secretary Michael Gove, a staunch royalist, suggested that the public present the monarch with a new royal yacht, which was estimated to cost upwards of £60million at a time of ubiquitous austerity. Commenting on a letter written by Gove to ministerial colleagues, the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour explained that Gove seems to have thought lavish spending and public celebrations could lift the people’s spirits. This manoeuvre cast the Scotsman at once as a reverent traditionalist and a forcefully idealistic, if not swashbuckling politician, whose intrepidity would allow him a great deal of personal freedom. However, at the same time, he failed to answer how to square his extraordinarily insensitive proposal with the feelings of those hardest hit by the financial crisis.
As recovery plan, Gove’s push for a publicly funded, and ultimately unnecessary, give-away for Britain’s most privileged household was economically naïve, politically untenable and socially reckless. Coupled with a tendency towards outdated political gestures and over-simplification, Gove’s idiosyncratic worldview re-emerged in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum. Ian Leslie, writing a rather favourable piece about Gove for the New Statesman in October 2015, quotes a source describing Gove as a “conviction politician” whose argumentative thrust derives from preconceived notions “about what works”, adding that “he isn’t that fussed about evidence”. Yet engaging with well-constructed, fact-based and robust arguments, as well as those who put them forward, is what constitutes an inquisitive and intellectual mind-set. Conversely, a refusal to do so is, by both definition and logic, anti-intellectual.
Interviewed by Faisal Islam of Sky News last month about the EU referendum, Gove dismissively proclaimed that “the British people have had enough of experts,” saying that they “get it consistently wrong”. Further challenged by the interviewer, Gove favoured his “faith in the British people to make the right decision” over the informed recommendations of those he had just summarily and unthinkingly disparaged. Despite his good education, and the fact that the New Statesman article describes him as a voracious reader – “his mental bandwidth is high” – Gove seems to refuse the difficult task of educating the people he politically represents in the basics of international relations and European affairs. In so doing, he contributes to ordinary people’s disenfranchisement at the same time as he claims to empower them by exiting the EU. Another journalist described Gove’s assertion as “amid a strong field of contenders, one of the most depressing moments in the interminable European Union referendum campaign”.
For me, it was the single most depressing moment, not only in the referendum campaign, but in my entire life as a politically-minded global citizen. Since the 1990s, Europe has ceased to be fragmented by a tightly-woven network of national borders and open gateways have fostered a climate of exchange, openness, intellectual endeavour and critical enquiry. However, the recent upsurge of right-wing populist parties across Europe, as well as the increasingly hostile turn in public discourse, is not only likely to consign porous borders and a climate of respect, reciprocity and mutuality to the dustbin of history, but it could also result in the break-up of one of the biggest peace projects in modern history.
Despite its often overly bureaucratic nature, the EU is nonetheless a worthwhile project, which, if politicians stopped their ransacking, could be developed into what Ulrike Guerot, a German political scientist, has tentatively called res publica eurpaea, or ‘European republic’. The EU is currently a supra-national union, asking its member-states to surrender parts of their national sovereignty. Among a plethora of ramifications, this process leaves voters with national parliaments whose powers are curbed and, more importantly, with a feeling of being disempowered. In this situation of perceived powerlessness, Guerot writes, the voters are not able to make their voices heard and their choices known: “The problem of not being able to choose European policies is that the real choice is between populisms and technocracy. And that is something that alienates people and ultimately reinforces populisms (of various kinds).” In a climate of alienation, populists and their reductive views will thrive easily, since they can prey on people’s fears in order to exploit them for political gains. This is exactly why the Leave campaign and Michael Gove’s anti-intellectualism, which he displays so proudly and blatantly, have been so successful.
The Leave campaign built its arguments around popular anti-EU stereotypes, used unverified facts and exploited the politics of fear. The much-referenced “unelected officials” of the EU are no strangers to Britain with its hereditary monarchy and House of Lords; the claim of £350million sent to Brussels every week was frequently subject to qualifications before and after 23 June; and the now infamous “Breaking Point”-poster rolled out by Nigel Farage was one of the most harrowing images of xenophobia seen in present-day Europe. Accordingly, it is now time to dispel these dangerous myths and to lift the right-wing smokescreen.
Writing more than 20 years ago, the literary historian and cultural critic Edward W. Said described the role of intellectuals in his book Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures as follows: “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.” What British voters were able to witness in recent weeks was a re-emergence and consolidation of stereotypes, rather than their deconstruction. Jointly framed by simplifications and populist rhetoric, Gove’s support for the Leave campaign exacerbated existing divisions in British society, contributing to a rising culture of anti-intellectualism in the British public sphere. Had his leadership bid been successful, the finer and subtle distinctions of public discourse would have been likely to vanish, and this evolution of incendiary ideas could have further emboldened those who refuse to acknowledge the complexities of 21st-century politics.
Now that Gove has had to leave the Ministry of Justice in the wake of Theresa May’s access to the premiership, his vociferous role in the referendum campaign confirms that he is not the only public figure amplifying this anti-intellectualism trend – he is merely the most vocal one. Interestingly, however, it was Ted Heath, a Conservative like Gove, who took the United Kingdom into what was then called the European Community, or EC, in the early 1970s. In later decades, even hard-boiled Thatcherites like the late Geoffrey Howe correctly assessed the inexorable process of European integration. Echoing Harold Macmillan, Howe, formerly chancellor and foreign secretary under Thatcher, delivered a damning verdict of the Iron Lady’s nostalgia for Britain’s glamorous, but certainly not glorious, past in his famous resignation statement from November 1990: “As long ago as 1962, he [Macmillan] argued that we had to place and keep ourselves within the EC. He saw it as essential then, as it is today, not to cut ourselves off from the realities of power; not to retreat into a ghetto of sentimentality about our past and so diminish our own control over our own destiny in the future.”
In a bitterly ironic way, Leslie’s portrayal of Gove in the New Statesman emphasises the now-sacked justice secretary’s keen interest in “political biography”, but fails to translate this private interest into public action. If Gove really cared about Britain (as he claims he does), he would study how some key figures of his own party viewed the most pressing issues in British politics. But, as Leslie continues, Gove’s relationship with the Tory establishment is a complicated, at times ambivalent, one – even his party “isn’t sure if he is an asset or a liability”. Had he become prime minister, his firm belief in simple solutions would not only have turned him into a definitive liability for the Conservatives – rather, Britain is likely to have completely reverted to its once infamous status as the “sick man of Europe”.
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