Michael Gove, Burke and Empire

Change is a term supposedly linked to progressive politics now, but only inasmuch as both words have been so far diluted as to be palatable for all angles of political shooting.

To be progressive, regardless of what we can read of its literal meaning, was always synonymous with enlightened politics, as opposed to retreat, back into a politically Victorian-like nightmare. The term was always loose, but now even further so, particularly in the dawn of such oddities as progressive conservatism.

It takes a brave leftist to admit that the word progressive can only justifiably be used in opposition to ‘right wing’ if one considers the sum of the right wing to be reactionary, which, sadly, we haven’t got the privilege of believing anymore, stricto sensu. The fact that we have to admit there are conservatives who are a part of enlightenment politics, says more about what enlightenment politics is, or rather is not, which is the solution to all our problems.

Enlightenment politics is, in short and simplified, the realisation of human liberty, but this is not enough in itself. Problems as important as how one should infer policing inside that liberty, how one ought to govern that liberty, and opinions on who one thinks should enjoy that liberty, which wakes us up from any such delusion that with enlightenment thinking follows political convergence.

Establishing what really counts as progressive, even if it means waking up to the fact that in this pack includes conservatives (who are gay now, keen on fair trade products, environmentally active, chuggers and chuggees, vegetarian, tolerant of Sarah Teather etc) and liberals alike, should make it a lot easier to identify who is lagging behind.

One modern day politician who is lagging behind on this front is Michael Gove MP, the secretary of state in the new department of education.

During the 2008 Conservative Party conference Gove called Edmund Burke the greatest Tory ever, and there are reasons today to suspect that this Burkian backbone will follow Gove as he makes his radical changes to the educational system.

Edmund Burke is in many ways a revolutionary figure; supporter of the American revolution, led a faction of old Whigs, conservative in colour, against the Whigs of new, clumsily laying down their support for the Jacobins in France, was and still is admired as much on the conservative right as he is by those within the classical liberal tradition. Before Disraeli’s finest years – poster boy for the new red, green and compassionate Tories – Burke was the original liberal conservative.

Burke, in his heyday, argued in favour of a free market in corn during a parliamentary debate on the prohibition on the export of grain on 16 November 1770, arguing not for tariffs but for the natural price “which grain brings at an universal market.”His insistence of the organic society, bestowed upon us by God, stemmed from the freedom of the market from tariff and regulation. God, for Burke, made the free market just.

This didn’t please everyone of course. Marx said of Burke, in Das Kapital: “No wonder that, true to the laws of God and Nature, he always sold himself in the best market.”

You can hear echoes of Burke’s market utopia in some of today’s laissez-faire thinkers, such as Dr Eammon Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, who, in his response to the financial services authority in 2009, said that:

Financial institutions were, and remain, completely bound by regulations … Adding more checklists or employing more regulators would not have prevented the crisis … the FSA should be scaled back to what it can actually achieve, and more weight given to existing market-restraint structures, such as the Financial Reporting Council, and the Accounting Standards Board, and non-executive directors”.

The banking crash was not due to light touch regulation, the fetish of consumer debt by the City or even a supposedly left-wing government gagged and consumed by the filthy rich and their scrag ends lining the pockets of zealous minsters in the era of the have and the have yachts, of course it was due to too much regulation, suffocating the organic market, and thus crucifying God with forms and procedures.

For Butler, as for Burke, the invisible hand is being severed like that of a petite thief in down town Riyadh. But what Marx picked up in the quote above is that market utopia in curbing regulation and tariff is a dangerous delusion; the market is always manipulated, and comparisons of its freedom with some Rousseauian wet dream is a categorical error.

But in spite of this Michael Gove constructs the image of the perfect Tory in Burke – well, if he insists.

Gove recently told reporters that, as a conservative, he has no ideological objection to firms making a profit in children’s education. Now this might be fair enough. It doesn’t take a philosophy king’s command of logic to recognise that it doesn’t necessarily follow that profit-making providers equates a bankrupt education system – it takes an honest leftist to admit this. But the pursuit of profit, and the privatisation of teachers – a tool in Gove’s box – won’t necessarily improve the provision of education either. It would seem that if this is part of Gove’s free-school approach, where providers backed with private financiers compete against parents to manage schools with regulatory body ratings of ‘outstanding’, aren’t we simply thrown straight back into that pool, where the marketplace is dominated by power? Is this Gove’s returning gesture to Burke’s organic market structure, that owes less to nature and more to state sanctioned finance sector hegemony?

The parents in Gove’s free-school idea, nicked from the Swedes, then put through a shredder, aren’t even able to save a school if the head or governing body want to opt-out of ‘free’ status, so says Fiona Miller, education campaigner and spouse of Alistair Campbell. The secretary of state has the right to close a school and the parents are left only with the option to protest the decision, much like before – is this change? I dare say parents had more power when schools weren’t, in the most perverse way the word can be used imaginable, free.

As well as being known for his support of a free market for corn, Burke might also be remembered for his promotion of the British Empire. He once stated that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”. What first comes to mind is that if an empire needs a bit of telling on its promotion of freedom (hence the word must), but yet it cannot be governed by anything other than freedom, then it frankly hasn’t got its priorities right. But this aside, the British Empire, it turns out, didn’t always have freedom as its plan, it had cultural hegemony as its plan and I make no apologies for my thinking this. Many good people are suspicious of cultural relativism, and I count myself among them, but maybe, just maybe, the culture that we tried to import, on the basis alone that we once saw ourselves as bearing a culture, and being arrogant enough to think it needed foreign backing, might not be a good sample of the kind of thing we want to be putting on our national CV.

I think that is a sound opinion, and I hope you do too. But I know at least two men who don’t. One of them, Mr Gove, the other, now in the employ of Mr Gove, one Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson has been characterised as the Jamie Oliver of History, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is true, because as far as I can tell Oliver can at least tell his mange tout from his lady fingers.

In Ferguson’s opinion history is a discipline that won’t be jeopardised by propagating too strong an opinion. Barely concealing his apologies for the British Empire, and criticising the American Empire for not being enough like the former, is one thing, but even basic knowledge can remind one that history is at least the one subject where a relaxation of emotional attachment to a political ideology is vital.

In fact, the first lesson of relaying the objective facts lent to us by history is to leave agendas aside (they can obscure our understanding, and drag historical literature down to the level of Chinese whispers).

Well this simply isn’t on the menu for Ferguson, who will now be in charge of deciding what goes in and what stays out of the curriculum of history for children (perhaps this is why the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – a non department body – has been scrapped by the new coalition government).

Gove’s reason for allowing this is because he believes in traditional history teaching. We can guess what this means (Tudors, Saxons, Smurfs, Pingu etc) but is Ferguson the architect of traditional history, or is he to history what Mao was to the open society.

Recently in the staggers, the fantastic Laurie Penny said on this very subject:

Andrew Roberts, another historian lined up to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar Massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this “celebratory” curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.

It won’t necessarily be the bright spark of the bunch who works out that there is perhaps more to Gove’s appreciation of Burke than simple free market conservatism. There is a warped view of the market and a penchant for the empire about our least favourite minister. I wish him the very worst.


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