The “Michael Gove mystery” is how the same politician can be so loathed and so admired at the same time. The answer to the mystery lies in the educational apartheid between the private and state sectors, which has far greater importance in the UK than in any other country in Europe.
In the UK, 7% of children attend private schools and 93% attend state schools. However the products of private schools go on to dominate those parts of society that have power and influence over the rest.
Gove is widely loathed by those who work in state schools and by those whose children and grandchildren go to those schools. Normally moderate head teachers passed a motion of no confidence and heckled him.
The state education system Gove took over in 2010 was not perfect but it was certainly not broken as it had been in 1997 after the last Tory government. Gove has pushed through a raft of harmful policies, which I have mostly written about before. He has pushed much of the state system into near-crisis.
Gove has denigrated, bullied and blustered. He has relied on a tiny coterie of advisers and tends not to engage in rational argument with those who oppose him but rather to subject them to ad hominem attacks by calling them “Trotskyites” or “the enemies of promise” or the like, in a chilling echo of the tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy.
But yet, Gove is admired and regarded as a leading contender for the leadership of a post-Cameron Tory party. He is viewed as one of the few political stars in the Cabinet.
Gove’s perceived success reveals much about power in the UK. The elite – that is to say the “people who matter” - do not use the state education system and often do not know well anyone who does. They are full of admiration for Gove.
It is a deeply held belief for many who use the private education system that the state system is self-evidently inferior (they do not consider that the private system’s “success” might be primarily due to the fact that the playing field is not level but has been sharply tipped in its favour). 90% of the press is right wing and carries frequent articles running down the state system written by journalists who don’t use it, for editors who don’t use it, employed by proprietors who don’t use it. The BBC and the Guardian do not provide much balance. Their editors and commentators tend to be members of the 7% private school elite too.
Our educational apartheid causes immeasurable harm to our country. Our elite are profoundly ignorant of the system that educates 93% of the population. One consequence of that is they have no idea how disastrous a minister Michael Gove is. They may just make him leader.