One Nation Under a Gove
- March 14, 2019
Whenever I hear politicians invoke ‘ the national interest’ I tend to reach for the metaphorical salt cellar. It’s not that I don’t believer there is such a thing, but ‘the national interest’ is one of those empty box phrases, like ‘national security’ or ‘the public interest’ that politicians can fill with whatever they want, and all these terms can be used to cover a multitude of sins.
Whereas ‘national security’ tends to evoke state secrets that are too hush hush to speak about, the ‘national interest’ suggests a sum of the parts that is higher than the parts themselves. As Merriam-Webster defines it, the national interest as ‘the interest of a nation as a whole held to be an independent entity separate from the interests of subordinate areas or groups and also of other nations or supranational groups.’
Historically, the concept of an overriding national interest has been linked to foreign policy and the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which prioritises the security and national interests of states over over ‘moral’ or ‘idealistic’ notions of multilateral collaboration and intervention.
The same concept can also be used in the context of domestic politics. Disraeli famously called for ‘One Nation Conservatism’ in which the Tory Party would act as a unifying arbiter between a country divided into ‘two nations’ whose classes had mutual obligations to each other.
When a government claims to act in the national interest, it claims to be acting selflessly and wisely, carefully weighing up all the arguments for and against a particular policy, seeking the necessary consensus and the compromises that can best benefit the country as a whole and knit competing interests or points of view together.
It’s generally considered an admirable and even noble aspiration. This was why Theresa May told parliament on Monday that she had lost her voice but understood ‘the voice of the country.’ It was why Michael Gove asked the House of Commons to pay tribute to May yesterday, declaring ‘ even though she may temporarily have lost her voice, but what she has not and will never lose is a focus on the national interest.’
Gove was at his most oleaginously sincere, positively oozing fake gravitas in his transparent attempt to show the country that, even in the howling storm of stupidity and folly that he and his cohorts have inflicted on us, he is a statesmanlike ‘unifying’ politician with his eye on the higher interests of the nation.
If I were Theresa May I would be as wary of such praise as Othello should have been about Honest Iago, because – to broaden the Shakespearean net a little – Gove and his pantomime Lady MacBeth wife are two people you need to keep your eyes on even when the lights are on if you choose to spend the night at their castle. And when Gove praises you, you better watch out, because he could so easily turn out to be Brutus.
May probably knows this, but her martyrd long-suffering expression yesterday made it clear that she agreed with his perception of her, and this is how she would like to be seen by everyone else: the brave battler whose only interest has ever been to serve her people and her country.
The rest of us should not be fooled by these antics. Gove is absolutely not the person to define the national interest. Like the partner-in-crime he stabbed in the back in 2016, his single overriding interest has been his own advancement or the advancement of his party. In July 2017 he said that bribing the DUP with £1 billion was in the national interest because it was the only way to have a ‘secure government.’
As Gove well knew, this bribe was intended to keep a Tory government in power – thereby keeping him in power – and prevent the Tory Party from falling apart.
If the ‘national interest’ means anything when applied to government, it means a willingness to act in the wider interest of the society that elected you, and to consider the potential risks and negative consequences of the decisions that you are about to take. It implies or should imply a willingness to explain these consequences to the electorate – not conceal them beneath platitudes and false promises.
At no time has the voiceless Prime Minister who thought that destiny had come knocking on her door back in 2016 ever shown these qualities.
Had May thought of the national interest she would not have tacked towards the hard right of her party as soon as she got her job and pursued a policy that was essentially designed to please them. She would not have described people who voted Remain as rootless ‘people from anywhere’. She would have tried to remove the Brexit negotiaitons from parliamentary scrutiny – even trying to block parliament in the courts. She would not have tried to blackmail parliament into accepting her deal by running down the clock. Throughout this process she has thought of one thing only – her own survival and the survival of her party.
Her colleagues are no better. If her predecessor thought of the national interest he would not have turned the country into a nation of foodbanks. He would not have called a referendum with dangerous consequences that he clearly did not anticipate or prepare for. If Gove had thought of the national interest he would not have thrown his weight behind a dishonest Leave campaign that never had any intention of fulfilling the promises it made and clearly did not even know what the consequences of leaving would be. If Philip Hammond thought of the national interest he would not offered to end austerity yesterday – but only on condition that parliament accepts the PM’s Brexit deal.
This is not the tradition of Disraeli and Macmillan. These are politicians who belong to no nation except their own. They shysters and chancers, careerists, fanatics and mediocrities. They have exposed their country to a level of peril and risk unprecedented in peacetime and reduced it to an international laughing stock. They have left a legacy of bitterness and division that has not even begun to run its course.
Let no one believe that they did this out of some misguided pursuit of the national interest or in the wider interests of society.
On the contrary, they have demonstrated, through their selfish ambition, zealotry and incompetence, that the Tory Party is the enemy of society and a direct threat to the national interest, and the sooner it is confined to the dustbin of history, the better for all of us.