Notes From the Margins…

Michael Gove’s Lovely War

  • January 03, 2014
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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 about them.

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.’

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 is 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.

Who are these decadent wastrels who denigrate these qualities?  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’ – 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 and imposing excessive demands on young children, Gove dismissed them all as left-wing conspiracists and ‘enemies of promise’ intent on destroying children’s educational prospects for purely 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.

Might Gove’s policies also have an ideological motivation?   Indeed they might, but don’t expect him to admit to it.  In his Mail diatribe he attacks the historian Richard Evans, for having ‘ criticised those who fought’ and for suggesting that  ‘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.

Never mind 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, which he has called ‘the teaching of history in schools to impart   a tub-thumping English nationalism.’

Evans has also criticized the government for promoting a triumphalist version of World War I during the centenary preparations.  Nevertheless Gove’s suggestion that he is ‘a progenitor   of existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders’ says a great deal more about Gove than it does about Evans.

For Gove, World War I was a noble and valiant victory over German tyranny and militarism and the Kaiser’s ‘aggressively expansionist war aims’ 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 a hideous war in which 17 million people died cannot be transformed into a sanitized tale of British heroism and goodness.  And if that is the purpose of the centenary, then Gove’s jingoism may be a taste of worse to come.


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  1. Mike

    3rd Jan 2014 - 8:11 pm

    Dear Matt, Although it has become one of the stock clichés when dealing with WW1, there is really little more to be said that wasn’t captured in Wilfred Owen’s stunning little verse “Dulce et Decorum Est” (not to mention the “Anthem for Doomed Youth”). I guess Mr. Gove still dreams of men (and women) dying in sweet and honourable ways for their country… incredible! Saludos, Mike

    • Matt

      3rd Jan 2014 - 8:54 pm

      Actually Mike, I think Wilfred Owen was a commie pinko and a ‘cynic’ too…

  2. Nigel Baldwin

    5th Jan 2014 - 3:03 pm

    Dear Mr. Gove,

    A small portrait of the First World War, from one who was on the Somme:
    “The name of Serre and the date of 1st July is engraved deep in our hearts, along with the faces of our ‘Pals’, a grand crowd of chaps. We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.” (Private A.V. Pearson, Leeds Pals)

    Enough said.

    • Matt

      5th Jan 2014 - 5:13 pm


  3. Miss Castello

    9th Jul 2014 - 3:54 pm

    Great article; four words would have covered it; ‘He’s’ full of shit.


    10th Jul 2014 - 1:47 pm

    Je remarque tout de suite que vous connaissez très bien ce que vous dites

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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