If asked to define, in one word, the state of political society in the 21st century, a strong argument could be made for ‘erosion’. Over the past twenty years, the western liberal world has seen an erosion of faith in government, an erosion of national cohesion, and an erosion of respect for democratic norms and values.
Much of this erosive force has come from a single factor – disenfranchisement. This was the argument made by Michael Gove in his Ditchley Lecture, delivered last week. The ‘compact leaders offered- trust that we are the best, trust that we have your best interests at heart, and trust that we will deliver- that compact was broken in their eyes’. A gulf has appeared between the governed and the governing, and as Gove rightly says, repairing our fractured political society should be the focus of Johnson’s government.
There is an even greater gulf, however, between what Michael Gove says, and what the government he is a part of actual does. The lecture elevates the idiom ‘do as I say, not as I do’ to its platonic ideal. Wearing his lecturer’s hat, Gove has succinctly set out some of the more obvious causes of, and solutions to, our societal malaise. But wearing his politician’s hat, he and his colleagues around the Cabinet table are steadfast in their refusal to truly engage in such reform. An air of detachment permeates the entire lecture, with Gove seemingly in denial of the fact that it is on the watch of the governments he has served – and the one he continues to serve in – that the nation’s ‘morbid symptoms’ have become terminal.
Mark Sedwill’s sacking as Cabinet Secretary and as the National Security Adviser (NSA) over the weekend provides a clear example of Gove’s dichotomous thinking. Having a single person holding two constitutionally demanding roles was always going to prove challenging, and it may be that Sedwill is not the right person to be at the helm of the civil service during a period of reform. The problem has been properly identified. It may also be that Johnson appoints an innovative and independent thinker to the post, someone capable of restoring the civil service to a ‘Rolls Royce’ standard.
Yet two recent appointments suggest that such a solution is unlikely. Taking up the post of NSA is Sir David Frost, currently occupied in negotiating our trade deal with the EU. While Sir David is a creditable diplomat, and apparently doing a reasonable job in the negotiations, he is conspicuously lacking in the more obvious attributes of an NSA – not least any past experience with the security services. Similarly, Munira Mirza, who has been appointed to head the Race Commission, is an experienced and successful political adviser. But she is similarly lacking in the more obvious qualities of someone heading an commission on racial disparity, like a willingness to recognise that systemic racism may be partly to blame for race inequality. What these two appointees do share, however, is a St. John-like faith in the government’s agenda – not least on Brexit.
Such appointments fly in the face of Gove’s apparent desire to end ‘groupthink’, a ‘tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus’. Groupthink may not be the only Orwellian endeavour this government is pursuing, but it is one of the more obvious. The entire basis on which the Cabinet was appointed was Brexit groupthink- anyone who showed the slightest flicker of independent thought was shoved out, replaced by an invertebrate or an intellectual void, a minister who would robotically repeat whatever mantra Cummings programmed into them. Indeed, the Cabinet’s devotion to Brexit at all costs now extends to an outright refusal to consider extending the transition period, with even a global health (and now economic) crisis insufficient to warrant any deviation from Brexit’s preordained course.
It is not only with Brexit that creative or independent thought is derided. Last week saw the government confirm that it was going ahead with the construction of four new prisons. While Britain’s prisons may be perilously full, building more is not a meaningful solution to the problem. Prisoners aren’t chickens. You can’t just offer them a bit more space to roam about in, and claim that you’ve solved the problem. The situation is similar with the courts and the precipitously growing backlog of cases, where the government alighted on the solution of abolishing jury trials for some offences. Curiously, the fact that the backlog was not due to the coronavirus, but to the chronic and longterm underfunding of justice (a department where Michael Gove was Secretary of State), escaped the government’s analysis.
Both of these arenas – prisons and the courts – require sustained investment, not least to try and restore them to their pre-austerity state. This investment needs to be not only financial, but also intellectual. There needs to be a renewed approach to ensuring the courts adapt to the digital age. There needs to be real consideration as to why Britain has some of the worst rates of re-offending and juvenile offending in western Europe. Appeasing the baying mob by promising to increase sentences for those defacing statues simply kicks the real problem even further down the road.
Beyond this, Gove’s lecture suggests that he understands where much of the people’s anger has come from – the sense that it is ruled by a separate and unaccountable elite. His perfidious quip during the Brexit campaign about ‘experts’ was apt at the time, with people fed up with being governed by people who seemed to act only in their and their friends’ interests. This apparent understanding, however, has had little effect on reality. Past governments may have given off the occasional whiff of corruption, but Boris Johnson’s exudes a permanent stench. Being an ally of the prime minister- even a generically disposable one like Robert Jenrick – is enough to inure you from any punishment for wrongdoing.
Debacles like those of Cummings and Jenrick make the government look hypocritical and inept, unable to maintain discipline in Downing Street, let alone the nation. With Keir Starmer showing that he knows how to mete out swift justice, dispatching Rebecca Long-Bailey in an afternoon, Gove and the rest of his comrades-in-arms may want to reconsider if corruption and incompetence are really the hallmarks the government wants to mark itself with.
Some of Gove’s lecture contains ideas that are genuinely creditable. He is right to point to the fact that the civil service is too quick to reward success through moving individuals to new departments, defenestrating any expertise that they may have gained. Similarly, he is at least superficially aware that more needs to be done in social care, youth justice, and the police. But there is no recognition that much of this malaise can be laid at his own well-shod feet and those of Boris Johnson. It is the fault of these two and their coterie that we have spent the past four years navel gazing, blaming the EU for problems that have nothing to do with the European Parliament and everything to do with domestic politics. Gove’s lecture would be more creditable if he was willing to acknowledge that his faults are not limited to his failings at the Department for Education.
For much of this lecture, Gove draws on the governing philosophy of America’s President Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a revolutionary president whose New Deal reimagined and reinvigorated American society, but he was also willing to push against democratic norms, like threatening to pack the Supreme Court when it threatened his reformist agenda. Importantly, however, FDR was able to strike the right balance, maintaining the democratic norms and still rebuilding the economy, putting America on the path to becoming a global superpower. This government has not struck such a balance, failing where Roosevelt succeeded, breaking democratic norms and collapsing the economy. It has turned Britain into a global laughing stock, not a titan.
Michal Gove on Roosevelt
Roosevelt took it as a given that no society could succeed unless every citizen within it had the chance to succeed. Throughout his political career he had been concerned by the plight of the poor and vulnerable, and he knew they needed Government on their side if they were to achieve the dignity, status and independence they aspired to. Reform was needed he argued ‘that builds from the bottom up and not from the top down, that puts faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid’.
There are too many in our time and our society whose economic interests, and whose values, have been forgotten. In our unequal times we must attend increasingly to those who have suffered from neglect and condescension and to those whose lives have been scarred by racism and prejudice.