To the Labour Party, Tony Blair is a difficulty. Its only leader to win two – let alone three – successive general elections is also the man who stained them with Iraq, the authoritarianism of his post-9/11 cabinets, and the Mandelsonian intense relaxedness around the filthy rich. As nervous as the present party seems to distance itself from anyone identified too closely with New Labour, it is still haunted by the suggestion that it hobbled itself when it failed to choose the more Blairish of the Miliband brothers as leader. Blair’s status is very different among the present Tories. On the cosmetic level, Cameron’s supposed detoxification of the “Nasty Party” was explicitly based on Blair’s analogous muting of his party’s traditional Left credentials, complete with the positioning of the ad-man “heir to Blair” Cameron himself at its centre. At the level of policy, Matthew D’Ancona’s account of life in the Coalition, In it Together (2013), describes a Tory inner circle captivated with Blair’s memoir, A Journey (2010), which they read as a warning from a “frustrated reformer” who came to regret not having forced more of his vision through during the 1997-2001 government when he had the mandate to back it up. A coalition of parties that got what seats they did on largely contrary election promises has a mandate for virtually nothing. And yet a desire to be more authentically “Blair” than Blair has been behind the Tory-led government’s commitment to forcing through massive and deliberately irreversible public sector “reform”: a word which Perry Anderson notes has completely reversed its meaning in the past half-century.
In this party of two Blairs – the master of presentation and the would-be reformer – the Education Secretary Michael Gove has a particularly special position. It is a neat irony of the Tory attempt at detoxification that the party could only start emulate anything like the common touch of the early Blair by appointing the most monochromatically privileged upper rung of the party in decades. By contrast, “Oiky Gove” – as Private Eye imagines his colleagues call him – is a scholarship boy and the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor. Among the Etonian smoothies and city boy spinners, Gove has the appearance of authenticity going for him: but this myth of the Govean authenticity extends far further into his meaning for the Coalition.
Gove’s mission for education reform has been consistently chaotic. Popular measures such as school sport partnerships and Bookstart have been abolished in bouts of austerity-swaggering only to be partially restored after public outcry, plans for an “English Baccalaureate” to replace the GCSE were leaked and also had to be shut down, flagship academies were being declared “inadequate” by Ofsted well before the “Trojan Horse” episode, disproportionate levels of funding have been found to be being thrown at Free Schools in a bid to shift them into the profit-making independent sector, and Gove himself has been the object of several no confidence votes from teaching organisations, not to mention scandals over the bullying tactics and misspeaking of his aides. But ironically, in a Coalition where the appearance of conviction about anything beyond business interests is in short supply, even these embarrassments are rhetorically valuable. The key to Gove is that he appears to really believe it. This is the significance of the apparently eccentric hectoring and misapplied slogans from Cyril Connolly and F.R. Leavis, and the identification with traditional syllabi and modes of assessment quite out of sorts with most research on effective learning. As was the case with Andrew Lansley – who in his short stint as health secretary was permitted to run wild with a dystopian reimagining of the NHS, only to be demoted when it became a PR liability – the current Tory Party actually needs these figures of dead-eyed commitment to dampen the perception that they are all just charmers and spinners who only care about protecting the interests of their rich friends. The Goves and the Lansleys retain this value even when they fail, because one arm of the Tory interpretation of Blair always has to be qualified by the other.
Gove’s reforms are a curious combination of the economically latitudinarian and the intellectually prescriptive, revelling in a deregulated heteroglossia of competing education providers while demanding ever-greater stricture over what actually gets taught. What the myth of Gove’s authenticity covers over in this is the unanswered question of why the dogma of consumer “choice” should apply to education at all. Parental lobbying over how schools are run is a welcome part of democracy, but the finer points of pedagogical technique are scarcely something most parents would claim much working expertise on. Why indeed should they, when one of the benefits of a public sector is that it means we don’t all have to be discerning shoppers when it comes to traffic light systems and flu jabs, but – ideally – can appoint congenial people who do know about them to manage them for us. Education is just a peculiarly emotive example of such natural monopolies that affect us all, and which do not benefit from the marketplace’s adored “choice”. The “Trojan Horse” episode says far less about a decline of homogeneous British values – as the authentic Gove has authentically claimed – than it does about the consequences of imagining education provision can be safely left to the marketplace, where anyone with the cash can stake their claim.