Still the first week of January, and already we have controversy over the way the outbreak of the Great War will be commemorated in the year of its centenary.
The decision to feature Lord Kitchener on the new £2 coins is one insult to the millions he urged to their deaths.
Before becoming the war’s most famous poster-boy, Kitchener was associated with a savage campaign of massacre and looting in Sudan and the establishment of concentration camps in South Africa.
Michael Gove would object to that assessment, but the evidence is there to label Kitchener a murderer on a dizzying scale.
Meanwhile, Gove is once again attempting to rewrite history. To spin the facts to fit his peculiar, outdated, discredited, jingoistic, nationalist worldview.
This is Gove on 1914: “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… the war was seen by its participants as a noble cause.”
So let’s hear from one of those participants. A man who, unlike Gove, knew what he was talking about. And, incidentally, expressed himself much more clearly.
Before his death at 111 in 2009, Harry Patch was “the last fighting Tommy” – the last survivor of the 1914-18 trenches. Unlike Gove, he knew what war was.
“It’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?
“All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?
“The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves.”
Patriotism, as Harry Patch knew only too well, is not a virtue, but (even Gove should know the quotation) the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Or, at best, the common delusion that led to two world wars and a great many of the troubles that still afflict the world today.
Perhaps, instead of the brutal Kitchener, we should have an image of the gentle Harry Patch on our coins.
Someone asked me over lunch the other day: “What has Michael Gove done wrong?”
I was unable for three reasons to give a full reasoned answer to this.
Reason one: I didn’t want to spoil a convivial festive occasion.
Reason two: I was so taken aback I didn’t know where to start.
Reason three: There wasn’t time then, and there isn’t space here, to list the full catalogue of his arrogant meddling with the education system.
I’m not an expert. I do know enough, however, to know that the little I know about teachers’ honest goals and difficulties is more than Gove has troubled himself to learn. There is no one more ignorant than he who believes he already knows it all.
Ignorance of their brief is, of course, a tradition among government ministers (just think of Jim Hacker in “Yes, Minister”). The truly catastrophic ones are those who combine zealotry with an unawareness of their own depths of unknowing. That’s Gove to a T.
“So what,” I was asked, “should Gove do?”
To which at least part of the answer was easy. He should seek – and take seriously – the advice of the people who actually do know what they’re talking about. Which in his case means teachers.
Of course, Gove doesn’t like teachers because so few of them actually vote for him or his party. One result of his policies, however, is to make those few fewer. Which perhaps ought to give him and his Conservative colleagues pause for thought.
A survey published this week suggests Gove may be more unpopular with teachers than any previous education minister. Which is some going.
To put some flesh on that:
- 74 per cent of teachers say their morale has declined since the coalition took power;
- 52pc say they are less likely to stay in the profession as a result of changes to their pay and pensions, and 57pc are less likely to stay as a result of changes to their conditions;
- 69pc of teachers – and 81pc of headteachers – said Gove’s reforms had not done at all what they were supposedly intended to do, “empower teachers”.
And, in what amounts to a condemnation more of his government colleagues than of Gove himself: 49pc of teachers report malnutrition or hunger affecting the ability of pupils to concentrate. Which might be what you’d expect in sub-Saharan Africa, but is a truly shocking statistic in what is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
The survey, and the figures, come from the biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers. The people, that is, who know. Unlike Gove.
The NUT says: “It was in the 1980s and 1990s that we last saw policies like Michael Gove’s.
“Education was underfunded, schools were run down, and teachers were vilified and in short supply. We have come so far since then. It will be a tragedy if Gove is allowed to turn the clock back.
“Unfortunately he is not prepared to just stop there. This is a giant experiment in deregulating education, putting our children’s future at risk.”
I couldn’t put it any better than that.