Michael Gove: Education, Re-moralistation and Foreign Policy

by | 1 Oct 2013


“Disgrace, you’re a disgrace!” jeered Michael Gove to Tory backbenchers after the British government’s defeat over intervention in Syria. Those who are aware of the Education Secretary’s thoughts on foreign policy would have been unsurprised by this over-excited response. It is widely acknowledged that Gove is the cabinet’s leading neoconservative and champion of Bush era doctrines  of intervention. Indeed, in 2011 Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, declared that Gove had “won” the battle for the Prime Minister’s ear on the matters of integration and radicalisation after Cameron’s speech in Munich that attacked the policy of state multiculturalism. Cameron’s decision to join the intervention in the Libyan civil war, just over a month later, and his eagerness to attack Syria, seems to confirm Hasan’s point that Gove has won the argument. An impressive and persuasive debater, it is unsurprising that the education secretary won out over an intellectually uninspiring cabinet.

Gove, I am sure, would not deny his neoconservatism. Though given the disaster that was the invasion and occupation of Iraq he may now not so publically sing its praises. In 2004 Gove published an essay entitled ‘The Very British Roots of Neoconservatism and its Lessons for British Conservatives’ in which he states British precedent in the doctrine of pre-emption and the justification of the use of force for saving the world from tyranny (Gove, 2004: 271). In this essay he repeats the common tropes of neoconservative thought that were so common in the lead-up to the invasion of 2003, “neoconservatives maintain that the West will face fewer threats if it acts as handmaiden to democracy abroad rather than allowing enemies to gather”. Echoing Blair, this means military intervention as a method of spreading democracy. He continues,

Moreover, neoconservatives believe that a nation’s survival and strength depend upon moral foundations. To purge morality from foreign policy is not just to betray the West’s best instincts, it is to undermine the foundations of its continued vigour. (Gove, 2004: 277)

The question regarding Gove though is if and how this view of foreign policy relates to his activities as the Secretary of State for Education. I believe that his understanding of foreign policy and education policy are linked and that is essential to bear in mind the former whilst considering the latter. Gove, despite what many in the teaching profession think, is not an idiot and his approach to education, particularly regarding the content of the national curriculum, is based on a well established set of philosophical assumptions about the outcome of modernity that are derived from the American neoconservative tradition. This is why it is so important that his curriculum reforms have recently been forced into a massive rewrite.

Gove’s neoconservatism, like that of the persuasion in general, has sometimes been reduced to the hawkish foreign policy associated with George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Gove is a signatory of the statement of principles of the Henry Jackson Society, a cross party British think-tank dedicated to “democracy” and a “robust, foreign, security and defence policy”. The society is named after the American Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a Cold War anti-communist Democrat who was the figure-head of neoconservative foreign policy in the 1970s. Notable aides of Jackson were Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, people all very much associated with the foreign policy of George W. Bush and the War on Terror. The Henry Jackson Society, it should be noted, has an advisory council made up of numerous Conservative and Labour MPs as well as some prominent academics, notably Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron’s former teacher.

This reduction of neoconservatism to a hawkish, neo-imperialist foreign policy belies the fact that American neoconservatism developed in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to post-war American political modernity and its manifestation in the counter-culture and the liberalism that allowed it thrive. It was first and foremost a mode of thought concerned with culture and not foreign policy; Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the emergent counter-culture were the targets, not communism and it was not initially concerned with spreading democracy. The developing counter-culture of the 1950s was seen by to-be neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol as a dangerous relativism that rejected the normative moral order of the protestant world. This aspect of neoconservatism is perhaps best known for its role in the American culture wars, not terror wars.

However, following the collective war lust of 2003, it is quite possible that one could be a neoconservative terror warrior and whilst not being a neoconservative culture warrior. The Henry Jackson Society, for example, publishes on subjects closely related to foreign policy and not on culture. The question is whether Gove is the latter whilst not being the former?

Gove’s 2006 book Celsius 7/7 is his analysis of the cultural conditions that led to “the West’s”  response to Islamic terrorism. Gove believes that a de facto policy of appeasement has been in place that has allowed terrorist linked groups to grow and prosper and which has led to the appearance of “home grown” terrorism. Gove locates what he perceives to be the malaise of “the West” in the counter-cultural liberalism of the 1960s and a subsequent inability to “maintain moral clarity” (Gove, 2006: 79). He believes that an inability “to pass a moral judgement to declare a particular course of action superior, to uphold the values of a particular culture as more worthy of emulation, to declare without shame that one knows better” (Gove, 2006: 79) is symptomatic of a moral malaise that is leading to the decline of “the West”. Such moral relativism is associated by Gove with all things post-modern. This is in opposition to, for example, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who in neoconservative mythology is taken as paradigmatic of a morally certain politician (the myth does not match reality). In this imagination Reagan enacted a robust foreign policy in defence of freedom and a well defined moral order.

Importantly Gove places the education system at the centre of this perceived malaise and draws upon Allan Bloom’s best selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom marries the political philosophy of Leo Strauss (of whom he was a student) with neoconservative cultural commentary and attacks modern education as an education to nihilism that fails to teach the moral superiority of the given culture. For Bloom, and for Strauss as well, the actuality of moral superiority is not important (and would in fact be questionable) but what is essential is the production of belief in moral superiority in the given culture for reasons of political stability.

Strauss’s idea of political philosophy is not the philosophising of the political but is philosophy thinking politically, in other words, it is the philosopher being careful of his/her teaching and not disrupting the conventional morality of the society in which it develops. It doesn’t matter that it is intellectually questionable to definitively assert the moral superiority of a particular culture, one should do it anyway because to not do so is morally and therefore also politically catastrophic. A community that does not have a clear sense of moral value is ultimately incapable of defending itself because is cannot generate the sacrifice because the ability to wage war is always linked to a community’s willingness to accept sacrifice in the name of a cause. The moral relativism of “the West” affects its ability to defend itself and so there becomes a political rather than a moral need to “re-moralise” society. This is a phenomenon that American neoconservatives noted throughout the 1970s and 80s.

It is for these reasons that Gove rejects multiculturalism and asserts the moral superiority of liberal capitalst culture. Education, in this view, should therefore regard the instillation of a belief in a normative moral order (for Gove, the superiority of “Western” values) and not a critical appraisal of such assumptions. Gove concludes his book “we… need to rediscover and reproclaim faith in our common values. We need an ideological effort to move away from moral relativism and towards moral clarity.” (Gove, 2006: 138) It is in this light that we should view Gove’s attempts to remodel the national curriculum, particularly regarding the teaching of history. Gove’s initial vision for the history curriculum imagined a light-weight learning of “facts” focusing on the celebration of British heroes, particularly those of empire. World history was left to one side and analytic and interpretive skills were of no concern.

In Gove’s curriculum the study of history in school was not supposed to develop the style of thought that any historian would find indispensible, the skills that will eventually develop into those of critique, but produce a national myth to counteract nihilism. It is significant that of the TV historians that Gove has courted Niall Ferguson is a prominent supporter. Ferguson’s analysis of US imperialism leads him to conclude that Americans, as a people, lack, because of their education, an imperial “will to power”. This is something that the playing fields of Eton did not allow to happen to the British Empire, but that the national curriculum has done to the modern British will.

Education can therefore set the scene for the production of a normative moral order, this moral order can then produce the need for it to be spread, and in the neoconservative argument spreading this moral order (democracy and capitalism) is the best way of protecting that order.

Gove then, differing from most of the American neoconservatives, is significant because he has risen to political power with influence over education and not foreign policy – American neoconservatives in government positions have generally been in the Departments of State and Defence. This is significant because neoconservatism is, rather than simply a hawkish foreign policy stance, better understood as an attempt to re-impose a moral discourse in response to the outcome of modernity. In many ways then it is more notable that Gove is in the department of education rather than the foreign office because it is here, as thinkers like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom knew so well, that the long term ideological battle will be fought.

David Hancock has recently submitted his PhD on the relationship between the political philosophy of Leo Strauss and neoconservative cultural politics to the London Graduate School, Kingston University. He teaches media and cultural studies at Kingston University.


  1. Interesting stuff. After reading I’m wondering to what extent you would agree that the end, subconciously or otherwise, of the neoconservatism you discuss is violence and domination (will to power?), and the cultural projects you describe merely the means?

    • I completely agree MT.


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