Will Michael Gove become Britain’s first fascist Prime Minister?
In a new essay for the IPPR’s Juncture, Professor Tim Bale bemoans the demise of the Tory left. That loss, he says, may make the Conservative party unelectable for a long period, given the electorate’s centrist inclinations:
The Conservative party may have dumped Thatcher in 1990 but it did not dump Thatcherism. Indeed, by 1992 it was well on the way to being the almost fully Thatcherite entity it is today……..
Despite the efforts of a few outspoken (and well-resourced) realists like Lord Ashcroft to provide polling evidence for staying on (or at least near) the centre ground, this cannot and will not happen unless there are enough people within the party itself who are willing to make a positive argument for a different kind of Conservatism to that which currently rules the roost. Ideologically, the Tory left would be ideally placed to fulfil that role. Sadly – and possibly fatally for the party’s chances at the next election and beyond – it is nowhere near strong enough to do so.
I think this analysis is profoundly wrong, based as it is on the entirely invalid assumption that the British electorate will always tend to seek the middle ground. It’s as though Professor Bale was unaware of that electorate’s huge swing to the right in the late 1970s, when it came under the influence of a powerful narrative which combined an appeal to personal freedom with a populist authoritarian streak (Stuart Hall’s 1979 The Great Moving Right Show remains the best analysis of this discursive framing).
This time around, though, it could be much worse. I say this particularly because, waiting in the wings for the right opportunity, is Michael Gove, and he is a dangerous, dangerous man. To be blunt, Michael Gove has the hallmarks of a genuine, emergent fascist – the term used in the historical sense rather than the looser pejorative sense used since the second world war.
Whatever we may think of Margaret Thatcher, she was no fascist. Certainly, she had a strong Tory authoritarian/traditionalist streak, and was no stranger to the abuse of state power in furtherance of her aims (e.g. the miners), but she knew there were limits to this; she bowed to pressure, for example, when the New Left took her on over Council budgets, only to make good on her intentions through legislative means in the form of the Local Government Finance Act 1988. Intellectually speaking - though she was no intellectual – her heroes Hayek and Friedman were of the libertarian right, where debate about power and the state tends to be uninformed by real world experience, rather than concerned with how such power is most effectively wielded on behalf of an all-encompassing state.
Michael Gove, on the other hand, looks to be an entirely different beast altogether - one not just operating in far more politically volatile environment than Thatcher, but one who seems more intellectually driven by the radical tenets of fascism than by the traditions of conservatism.
Of course fascism is a contested term, with no single, generally agreed definition. Nevertheless, it has a number of interwoven operational features which help distinguish it both from authoritarian Toryism and from Thatcherism:
- The development of a full-blown ’decadence’ narrative about modern society, the only remedy for which is strong central control of societal behaviour, and the creation of a mythical golden age, in which people led purer, more selfless lives;
- An overt willingness to use the power of the state to enforce, through misinformation if necessary, a particular view of how people should be required to conduct ‘non-decadent’ lives;
- The development of a nationalistic corporatism in which all groups in society are expected to play their centrally ordained parts in the delivery of national objectives.
- An aversion to the uncertainties created by the market, and a willingness to control the economy ‘in the national interest’
- A disdain for liberal democratic norms and conventions, which are seen as a sign of a state’s weakness rather than strength and confidence in itself.
Looking at Gove’s record, even over recent months, it is not hard to detect these tendencies in both policy substance and ministerial style.
First, and most obviously, there is his announcement (column 654) that there will be a single examining board for each GCSE/EBacc subject:
In each subject area, only one exam board will offer the new exams. The independent exams regulator will assess all the exams put forward by awarding bodies. The winner will be the board that offers the most ambitious course, benchmarked to the world’s best, informed by academic expertise and capable of both recognising exceptional performance and allowing the overwhelming majority of students to have their work recognised and graded fairly.
Stephen Twigg’s somewhat limp reply focused on Gove’s disregard for parliamentary procedure by ‘pre-announcing’ the plans to the media – a contempt for democratic convention certainly, but hardly the main point even in these same terms, given that the Education Select Committee have recently warned explicitly against a move to a single exam boards system, on the basis that “the costs, heightened risk and disruption likely to be generated by moving to a single board outweigh the potential benefits”(para. 55). The much bigger issue, though, is that by moving to single exam boards Gove (or his successor when that time comes) will wield much greater state power over what is and is not examined, and therefore taught; the businesses that run the exam boards will have little choice but to comply with, or willingly second-guess, the requirements of the Secretary of State, or risk losing their contract.
Such a process of co-option of business by the state is, as I’ve suggested, the very essence of fascist national corporatism. It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the opposite of what the more traditional Tories on the Education Select Committee recommend, but also runs counter to Hayekian doctrine on how open competition reduces the innately malign power of the state.
Hayek’s seminal ‘Denationalisation of Money’ (free pdf) argues that true economic efficiency will come when the power to issue currency is no longer the preserve of the state, and private organisations compete with each other to be offer the most trusted medium of exchange. Take the word ‘currency’ out of this text, and insert the ‘examination’, and you get precisely the argument that was used by the Select Committee for the continuation of exam board plurality. Gove, however, is having none of this competition stuff in his domain – he has grander priorities than freedom of trade.
As noted, it’s not just the policy, but the style that gives Gove’s true inclination away. Take, for example the new guidance to parents on the content of the revamped Key Stage 2 (end of primary school) literacy assessment. I happen to have seen this because my 10-year-old, a fine creative writer for his age, is unlucky enough to be the guinea pig for it, and risks therefore having his creativity deliberately stunted this year as the emphasis shifts from excellence in writing and comprehension to circling adverbs and putting inverted commas in the right place.
In a show of utterly pointless strength, the department has indicated that the standard of handwriting will form part of the assessment alongside grammar and punctuation. No details have yet been given of precisely what is expected, although the tests will take place just after Easter, but in an an increasingly digital age the idea that it is useful to spend educational resources on ensuring children have a uniform approach to how they write and join up letters can have no reasonable justification. It is being imposed – clearly with difficulty by the department’s experts - as part of Gove’s grand appeal to a halcyon past. It is a small part of the emerging aesthetic of this new fascism – order at the expense of creativity, pseudo-tradition at the expense of societal modernity and freedom of expression.
Then, of course, there are the very deliberate lies.
I have covered in detail, both at Though Cowards Flinch and in the Financial Times, the lengths Gove, and the Department of Education at his behest (along with his willing stooge at Ofsted), have knowingly told lies about standards of educational attainment in England. The important point for our purposes here is not so much the lying – after all, he is not the only minister to have been caught out – but the fact that those lies are, strictly in terms of policy objective, unnecessary.
If Gove simply wanted to improve educational standards, he could seek to do so simply on that the basis that this is, of itself, a good thing to do. If this were not felt sufficient, he could do so on the basis that standards in England have not risen as fast as in some other countries (although the nature of the PISA data he would use does make this debatable).
But Gove wants more than this. He and his acolytes are desperate to paint a picture of a once proud nation in terminal decline – a nation which can only be saved from further humiliation at the hands of foreigners through strong leadership of the type that only he can afford us. In fact, as Chris Cook at the FT has clearly evidenced, exam results have most likely got better because teaching and schools began to get much better around a decade ago (though Cook’s insistence that this was due to Academy status is odd).
But this reality is at odds with the Gove narrative of decline, and inconvenient reality is not going to stand in his way. That is not the way of the fascist.
Gove has all the makings, then, of a genuine full-blown fascist leader. And he’s good at it. In parliament, he plays the demagogue well, and – in stark comparison to Stephen Twigg but also to Cameron and Osborne. His total disdain for the opposition is effected with a solemnity to which Cameron can only aspire. He comes across as a man amongst (over-priveleged) boys; the public recognise and approve of that. It may be painful reading, but the approving comments he garners below the line on the many internet comment pieces about him do reflect a genuine admiration for his strength of vision, and his determination to carry it through, to the extent that the setbacks he does suffer such as the Building Schools Future debacle, come to be seen as obstacles ably overcome – mere details for this man of vision.
What makes Gove so dangerous, though, is the particular confluence of this raw populist talent and the political circumstances in which his star is now rising so fast.
First and foremost, there is the increasing likelihood that the Conservative party led by Cameron will be defeated in the 2015 general election If it is defeated it will be for two main reasons: the failure of austerity economics, a policy cul-de-sac in which it has become inextricably trapped, alongside the increasingly pervasive sense of governmental incompetence, itself stoked by the elitist ‘out of touch’ characteristics of its leading politicians (Gove excluded).
Just as importantly for our analysis, though, is the reason s it will not lose the 2015 election. It will not lose because of its social illiberal policies, or its increasingly hardened approach to the welfare state. These policies are, and will remain, relatively popular – hence Labour’s (short-termist) aping of many of them.
But if the Conservatives lose, they will be immediately leaderless, and immediately directionless. The possibility of a move towards a form of Red Toryism in a bid to outflank Labour’s ‘responsible capitalism’ from the left is no longer realistic, if it ever was, but a continuation of straightforward Thatcherite economic policy will also be impossible, given the abject failure to return the UK to growth. The Conservatives will enter a period of identity crisis greater than that of 1997, and comparable with that of the Edwardian period when, as EHH Green put its in his magisterial study of the period, the party stumbled into tariff reform as its key (electorally disastrous) policy because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.
Enter Michael Gove: reluctant leader, saviour of the party, prospective saviour of the nation. I don’t expect to see Gove striding down Whitehall in jackboots soon, but the danger that he will – at least metaphorically – is real enough.
As noted, the socially illiberal policies Gove instinctively favours as an emergent fascist will still be popular, but he will look and feel like a man better able to implement them than Ed Miliband, however tough Ed plays it.
Moreover, Gove will be unsullied by association with disastrous economic policy – it is no surprise that he wouldn’t be moved from the education brief – and therefore in a position to develop fascistic state economic intervention as a key policy aim; effectively this may be the development of a quasi- (let us hope) war economy in which, by default, the importance of the national deficit is set to one side in the pursuit of the wider goal of national salvation – we may even see some form of Modern Monetary Theory brought to bear, though it is unlikely to be termed such.
Within the ranks Conservative party itself, Gove will find plenty of willing acolytes to support him in in his reluctant crusade. The intellectually impoverished members of the Free Enterprise Group, for example, have already shown what good fascists they might make, using their Britannia Unchained publication to go beyond the bog-standard Thatcherite supply side solutions to economic stagnation (making it easy to hire and fire etc.), for an initial taste of the coming war against the decadence of the British workers. And the leading light amongst these young fascist wannabees, Liz Truss, has not only been snapped us by Gove for his department, perhaps because she already displays – as her recent ’research’ on childcare affordability shows – a notable ability to tell bare-faced lies for the greater cause. This group, and others within the 2010, will become willing and easy converts to the Gove cause, in the absence of continued Thatcherite leadership within the party.
In such circumstances, it is easy to conceive of a Labour party, which has as yet failed to come up with a genuinely socialist alternative to capitalist crisis management and remains stuck in the (by then) long decade of stagnation, relinquishing power to a suddenly vibrant – but very different – Conservative party led by Gove, in loose alliance with a number of European states experiencing the same trend. Just as the US Republican party in crisis now seeks salvation in ‘tea party’ politics, in its desperation to fall back on the original dream of American frontiership and self-sufficiency, so may European right-wing parties be tempted to fall back on the old certainties of fascistic government; the old saying that, under Mussolini, at least the trains ran on time, still holds some sway in the popular imagination.
The Labour hierarchy and its opinion formers, at least as yet, see nothing of this. Those who care about the rise of extremist politics in Britain seem entirely focused on parties and groupings beyond the current mainstream, unable or unwilling to recognise that effective extremism is much more likely to emanate from within the mainstream, given the current political conditions
They forget too easily, perhaps, that 1930s British fascism emanated, at least in part, from within a directionless Labour party. Labour would do well to heed the warnings of its own history, and set about creating a set of policies and institutions which, come what I hope is victory in 2015, will be enough to keep a new, very different, very dangerous Conservative party at bay. A call for the watering down of capitalism, alongside a Tory-lite attack on our ‘something-for-nothing’ benefits system, is unlikely to be sufficient; Gove can do all that with a lot more panache.
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