The WW1 centenary has barely begun, and our Education Secretary has taken a break from dismantling the nation’s education system to remind the world that the war was really a jolly good show all round, and that anyone who doesn’t agree is a pernicious commie pinko and a Britain-hater.
Michael Gove – for it is he – likes to think of himself as an intellectual, and for those who don’t recall his former incarnation as a British neoconservative and founding member of the Henry Jackson Society, he is also a politician who has yet to see a war he didn’t like.
Gove supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2001 he urged the West to support Sharon’s suppression of the al Aqsa Intifada and also to wage war across the Middle East in order to ‘bring democracy to its peoples.’
As late as 2010 he was still trumpeting the Iraq war as a ‘triumph of freedom over evil’ and a ‘proper British foreign policy success.’ Last year he could be found shouting at the Tory and Lib Dem MPs who opposed Cameron’s rush to war in Syria that they were a ‘disgrace’.
In short, Gove loves war – from a distance, since the 9/11 attacks appear to have compounded his fear of flying. And like many men who urge wars from afar that they would never dream of participating in themselves, he is also somewhat in awe of armies and soldiers, and tends – like Gordon Brown – to get a little mushy at the thought of the manly physical courage and self-sacrifice that he seems to think are the essential military virtues.
Gove is a keen supporter of the ‘soldiers into classrooms’ project and the introduction of cadet force units into the school system in order to promote ‘confidence, self-discipline and self-esteem’ amongst the nation’s deprived youth, who might otherwise be rioting. He also want free schools and military academies to ‘use their freedoms to foster a military ethos and raise standards.’
So it is no surprise then, to find him in the Daily Mail today, extolling his government’s intention to ‘ give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents, which is why we are organising visits to the battlefields of the Western Front.’o
In Gove’s estimation
‘The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best. But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict.
Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.’
Goodness, really? And who are these decadent wastrels? Well, they include fictional dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, which have depicted the war as ‘ a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’
Naturally these traitors to the nation include ‘ left-wing academics’. This is a category that Gove particularly despises. For Gove any academic who criticizes or opposes him is always ‘leftwing’, even if they aren’t.
When 100 leading education academics attacked his educational policies last March for promoting rote learning at the expense of creativity and imposing excessive demands on young children, Gove dismissed them all as a left-wing conspiracy and the ‘enemies of promise’ intent on destroying children’s educational prospects for ideological reasons.
You might expect an Education Secretary who takes education seriously to listen to some of the leading academics in the field. But Gove paid no more attention to their arguments than he does to teachers. In education, as in war, this is a man who knows the essential truths that others have overlooked.
Might Gove’s policies also have an ‘ideological’ motivation? Indeed they might, but don’t expect him to admit to it. For despite Gove’s attempts to present himself in the media as something of a charmer, his attitude towards his critics is also saturated with a petty personal vindictiveness, particularly when dealing with those who know more than he does – a category that includes quite a lot of people.
In his Mail diatribe he attacks ‘Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer,’ for having ‘ criticised those who fought’ and lambasts Evans for arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’.
According to Gove, Evans
‘has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in “narrow tub-thumping jingoism”. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’
Oh buurn. Just to remind you readers, that Richard Evans is one of the most distinguished historians in the country, a former expert witness at the David Irving trial, and the author of a monumental three-volume history of the Third Reich. Evans has also been a strong critic of Gove’s attempts to transform the history curriculum and ‘use the teaching of history in schools to impart a tub-thumping English nationalism.’
Evans has indeed criticized the government’s proposals to use the 2014 centenary as an opportunity to present a triumphalist British version of World War I. That doesn’t mean that anyone is obliged to agree with everything he says, but unlike Gove, this is an expert in his field who knows what he is talking about.
And to include such a man as a progenitor of existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders’ says a great deal more about Gove’s essential intellectual pettiness and ideological fanaticism than it does about Evans.
For Gove, World War I was essentially a a noble and valiant British endeavour, a triumph of freedom over German tyranny and militarism and the Kaiser’s ‘aggressively expansionist war aims’ – as if the Empire was not ‘aggressively expansionist’ – and another glorious episode in our island story which demonstrates that ‘ for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.’
Of course it has. What nation hasn’t shown ‘nobility and courage’ in its history? But British history cannot be reduced to that. And a hideous war in which 17 million people died.cannot be transformed into the vacuous fairy tale version of British goodness that the government is preparing to foist on to the nation.
And this intervention from Michael Gove, our 21st century renaissance man and warmonger, is an indication of what is about to come.
As for me, I’m sticking with Evans on this one.