The British people “have had enough of experts”. It was the defining moment of a referendum campaign that was not exactly limited in defining moments. It has come to signify the success of the Brexit vote, the success of Donald Trump and the rise of populist, mostly right wing, leaders around the world. Comically, it was a mistake.
Michael Gove never meant that the people had had enough of experts but rather that they had had enough of experts with “acronyms” who get it “consistently wrong”. Gove managed to cause not only a day of news, but also a legacy of many months, because he was cut off before he explained fully what he meant.
When I talk to Gove he seems to have forgotten about his lack of belief in experts. He believes that government education policy, in relation to Grammar Schools, was “driven by the evidence about what works” and that it would be more preferable to be “guided by the data rather than ideology”. Regardless of issues of misquoting, this certainly resembles a shift from his words on the Sky sofa during the referendum debate.
Indeed, a lot has changed since the end of the referendum campaign. David Cameron has resigned, Theresa May has replaced him, Boris Johnson has got a job at the Foreign Office and Gove has moved from a prominent place in the cabinet to the back benches, after his botched attempt to win the leadership of the Tory party.
Publicly, he seems to have decided that that part of his political, and personal, life is no longer one that should be discussed in interviews such as this. When I ask him about his long relationship with Boris Johnson, which spans all the way back to their presidencies of the Oxford Union, Johnson in 1986 and Gove in 1988, he says that he has “taken a vow of silence” on that particular subject.
Gove is an optimist at heart. It seems that he can see some sort of light in every situation. Despite having supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign, he says he has adapted and now sees promise in the presidency of Donald Trump. He suspects that “President Trump will be a different proposition from candidate Trump” and that, despite understanding popular concerns with the president, it is Trump’s aim for people to “look clear sightedly at what he is doing in the presidency rather than necessarily taken as read the assumptions that were generated from the campaign trail.”
We are yet to see whether Gove will be right, and initial actions by the new administration may call into question his optimism. But, in Gove’s mind, political adaptation is the key to this new relationship in order to secure the best deal for Britain as possible. For him, there needs to be no “romance to the relationship” but rather a more pragmatic “strong and businesslike” manner in its proceedings.
Pragmatism may be a defining aspect of Gove’s political ideology. When I raise concerns about whether, in order to gain a trade deal, the British Government should dismiss political decency he replies that political gains can be secured, whilst keeping to the standards of moral decency, through a policy that can only be described as non-embarressment.
In other words, keeping concerns about another government quiet and pressuring that government in private, rather than in public. He cites an example of dealings that he had with Saudi Arabia, when he held the justice brief. He said that he “wanted to ensure that the British Government, and my ministerial colleagues agreed with me, adhered to certain standards but in ensuring that those standards were adhered to, quite a lot of time, we had to exert private pressure rather than public pressure.” He made a calculated decision to limit public criticism of Saudi Arabia, and instead influence from the inside, and believes that that is how Theresa May should, and indeed will, handle the ‘special relationship’ during Trump’s presidency.
Pleasingly, Gove will take a joke at his own expense. When I ask him about whether we are in greater political turmoil now than ever before, he alludes to the “rage of party during the time of Queen Anne” and “the way in which the Victorian house of commons operated”. When I quote John Crace who said that Gove’s chat with Trump was “the interview of the century” he laughs and remarks immediately that he thinks it may have been a bit “tongue-in-cheek”. Similarly, he jokes that “many people might be very relieved” that he “has never been a minister charged with foreign relations”. You will not find any of the egocentrism of many of his political contemporaries in Gove.
However, he seems to have developed a knack for convincing himself of the purity of his side of the debate. For him, people should not be more afraid of Theresa May’s perceived shift to the right in her period as Prime Minister as she is in fact “more left-wing than some of her conservative predecessors”. Similarly, when I ask about Trump’s interpretation of Brexit’s cause as the idea that “people don’t want to have other people coming in and destroying their country”, Gove dismisses it immediately. “I think that his analysis of the reasons behind Brexit is incorrect,” he says. “Migration is a factor…but certainly not the driver that he thinks it was.” Indeed, he sees the arguments for Brexit as being “solid and robust” and dismisses any recent attempts to discredit them.
I ask about his recent use of the word ‘snowflake’ on Twitter when responding to concerns about Boris Johnson’s recent speech linking Francois Hollande to World War Two. Gove dismisses the linkage of the word to the alt-right and to a modern type of hate politics. He says that he “came across the term in a marvellous book by my friend Claire Fox” and that he “wasn’t aware that this phrase…had that particular genealogy”. Although Fox’s book certainly brought the word into wider usage, it has mostly been used as a pejorative term, especially during the presidential campaign.
It reduces the very serious concerns of many students and members of our generation to simple wimpiness or an unwillingness to engage. Yet Gove seems to have removed the context from the word believing that it is appropriate to use that sort of language online and yet still presenting himself as the epitome of politeness in public debate.
We finish the interview by discussing the future of his political and journalistic career. He does not view a return to mainstream, front bench, politics as a likely possibility in the upcoming months. He says he’s “very happy being a back bench MP” and thinks he will be “spending a good few years on the back benches yet”.