Michael Gove, the Hierarchy of Art Forms and the Murdoch connection

When I read about the overwhelmingly scathing response from what might best be called liberal-intellectual circles to Michael Gove’s removal of certain books from the GCSE curriculum, my immediate thought was that a certain set of people very much including Gove – that part of the Right which is set in equal terms against both F.R. Leavis and Stuart Hall, most prominently heard for the last three decades at The Times and The Sunday Times – owed the rest of us a deep and profound apology.  For years they had been painting liberal-intellectual Leftists not only as anti-American bigots, but as “the real nationalists”, “the real racists”, “the real xenophobes” (rather as Baroness Warsi, with all the anti-Muslim bigotry in the world potentially to confront in the Tory tabloids, cites Polly Toynbee as the worst example in the British press of such prejudice).  They had interpreted the way people on “our” side pick up on the way certain people unswervingly accept “billion” to mean a thousand million (a de-Europeanising change), but would regard driving in kilometres as a mortal sin, actually to be worse than the most xenophobic Sun headline or Daily Mail smear campaign (they were by no means universally supportive of the Mail, but when they criticised that paper it was largely over its streak of Old Tory realism in foreign affairs).  Gove himself wrote just such an article in The Times just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  But now they actually have power, here they were playing the conservative nationalist card of which they had previously seen themselves as the antithesis, a reinvention of their movement, and here were liberal-intellectual Leftists defending the artistic and cultural endeavour of a country which, a decade ago, “they” had accused “us” of imagining to be populated entirely by 30-stone rednecks, even on its coasts.

The sick joke of all this is, of course, that the media empire with which Gove’s entire career is indelibly and inexorably bound up is responsible for spreading far more of the stuff that pre-Thatcher conservatives would have roundly disapproved of (but which Gove’s ilk actually need to strengthen the separatism of responsibilities and interests which they instinctively depend on) than even the most relativist academic ever could.  For people like Gove, a theory or position making logical sense is an active pejorative, an active point against it, but the only conservative position which actually could hold up in practice what he expects his older supporters to imagine he believes (whereas in fact he does not believe it even in theory) is what could be called English Gaullism, opposed in about equal parts to the deregulated market and to socialism.  This never became a mass theory in England, and what foothold it had was effectively destroyed by Thatcherism (this applies as much to the anti-Blairite Left as to the active Right and to Blairites: whatever The Sun may imagine of him, Tom Watson does not support the IBA model of broadcasting any more than Rupert Murdoch himself does), but there were isolated moments in the past when it could have become dominant: the New Elizabethanism killed by Suez was (appropriately, considering the French connection) very close to it, and it could easily have thrived had Edward Heath won a second term (especially if the victory of a more consensual approach had killed Selsdonomics, or anything close to them, in the long term).  When Auberon Waugh opposed Murdoch from the Right, English Gaullism was his starting point.  A Scottish variant of this theory is not entirely unrepresented within the modern SNP.  But Gove has denounced and distanced himself from his homeland, aware that it can more easily see through his position, logic and consistency not being so instantly dehumanised there.

The idea of placing restrictions on the deregulated market so as to preserve the idea of “cultural standards” would be by no means off the scale within the mainstream of French conservatism, which is why it fits so perfectly into that “alternative 1974” counterfactual.  It has its own deep and profound faults, of course: it is possible (though I simply don’t know enough about current French politics to judge) that the drift of the mainstream French Right towards something closer to “Anglo-Saxon” neoliberalism under Sarkozy might have been a factor in the recent success of the Front National (who are not natural allies of UKIP, who they would regard both as mid-Atlantic neoliberal imposters and as straight-down-the-line rosbif thugs: despite the whiff of “fascism can only happen with those unstable, shifty continentals” that comes from him as from pretty much everyone in the Mail titles, Hitchens Minor isn’t wrong when he says the two parties come from wholly different traditions and starting points).  I propose it purely and simply as someone who recognises that, in many ways, Stalinism is closer to Mailism than it is to Trotskyism, and that Murdochism is in turn closer to Trotskyism than it is to Mailism, and who would like to see a realignment that actually reflects the fact that the Cold War has ended (Putin’s essential position is, in Owen Hatherley’s words, pre-Soviet, and many of his Western admirers see in modern Russia the Mayberrys or Walmington-on-Seas for which they imagined they were fighting the Soviet Union, not realising that the West had changed behind their backs), rather than as someone who particularly admires it himself (indeed, the libertarian, anti-State streak in English conservatism might be the saviour of myself and those who think like me in the event of Scottish independence).

There have been occasions when the anti-elitist streak in the Murdoch press has rendered it preferable to its rivals on the Right; compare The Times‘ admirable reporting of the St Paul’s School / Colet Court abuse allegations with The Spectator‘s odious response.  But its support for pop culture As Long As It Knows Its Place has made it curiously appealing – as a sort of ally of convenience – to those of the Left for whom any form of pop which isn’t “Tutti Frutti” is a straight road to an ELP triple live album, as if much of the most stimulating rock music ever made in Britain never existed (which, for the music press many of them grew up on, it might as well not have done – you might find more references to Tales from Topographic Oceans as a ubiquitous swear word in one issue of NME from that period than references to Peter Hammill or maybe even Robert Wyatt over several years’ worth of it).  More than twenty years ago, the Murdoch papers were running articles ostensibly “purely” about pop culture (there is never such a thing, in any sense), but in reality codifying a deeper political agenda, whose legacy is now running directly through the terror vandalism being directed at British education.  When I think of the virtual disappearance of the German language as a subject of study in many British schools, I think of a Caitlin Moran article which appeared in The Sunday Times in November 1992 mocking the idea of pop music even existing outside the Anglosphere and invoking pop and rock’s legacy to promote the concept of the world outside the Anglosphere as unknowable and untouchable, which at the time would have been dismissed as juvenile nonsense by anyone associated with any curriculum or exam board, but which would have been an active inspiration, cheered to the echo, for many now controlling such organisations, quite possibly including Gove himself.

Let me take a particular example from my own past (and let me also remember that, when deeply frustrated in 1996 with the apparent absence of a genuinely new cultural dichotomy at the very top of British society even a third of a century after Beatlemania, I actively assumed that such a dichotomy would have to be better than the one that came before it; I was deeply and profoundly wrong).  Ten years ago, I got into serious trouble for suggesting that someone I had encountered who expressed disquiet at the idea of hearing grime in Norfolk, even if he had been thinking in terms of the integrity and subcultural strength of the music, was invoking a dangerous crossover with the far-right.  I probably shouldn’t have compared his position directly to that of the BNP – it would have been better to invoke a less emotive and extreme comparison such as the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph – but I still find such a vision troubling.  In isolation, it fits well within the politics of that time, where I was trying virtually single-handedly to transcend the division of “progressive cities vs. quasi-fascist countryside” – the dichotomy of foot-and-mouth, the Countryside Marches, the pro-hunting invasion of the House of Commons, Mumford and Sons as unimaginable as the Rolling Stones in 1958 – and found, aghast, that vast numbers of my fellow Leftists, people I’d have liked to love, were perfectly happy to play the exact same games as the Right, unashamedly and unabashedly playing along with people they affected to despise.  They needed an enemy, and were only really happy and content as long as they could be sure that everyone in Norfolk or Dorset was their enemy; when they found people in those places who wanted to be their friends, they were unsettled, challenged, even disturbed and frightened.  If they couldn’t pigeonhole everyone in a particular place as their enemy, they could not manage the world around them so easily – because within the context of grime itself, they were merely cultural managers attempting to push its creators in directions many of them actively did not want to take – and then where would they have been?

But years later it got really interesting.  I was told that the person with whom I had fallen out (who shall remain nameless here) had in fact been working for the News of the World at the time, and suddenly everything fell into place: as an extreme souixante-huitard who had no real understanding of older socialist ideas, working for Murdoch would have been the ultimate snob-baiting gesture, the ultimate two fingers (or, perhaps, just one finger) to the paternalism which the New Left had once defined itself against (this is why some who have their roots in the New Left would feel torn on Murdoch’s power this century: they would worry themselves – I think mistakenly, but understandably in that generation – that if he went, much as they would applaud it on purely political grounds, the elitism and hierarchy they had once kicked against would have to come back).  Moreover, because he was offended (even if for different reasons) by the same kind of thing that long-standing Times and Sunday Times readers are also offended by, he also wouldn’t have taken exception to the stuff they cynically throw in to appease the people who have been reading The Times since it still had small ads on the front page.  While he would no doubt affect to despise Michael Gove now, the underlying politics of the Murdoch organisation were not only no threat to him, he actually felt closer to them than he did to quite a number of Left-wing ideas (if we must persist with Cold War language).

What all this has been getting to is that large swathes of the British Left, while they are right to despise Gove and his policies and ideas, do not really understand where they come from; do not in fact understand the whole drift and direction of British politics and culture in most of my lifetime (and a significant chunk of theirs), and so inadvertently play into Gove’s hands.  The root cause of Gove’s position is this: he resents John Steinbeck or Harper Lee not because they are “vulgar, jumped-up colonials” but because he seems them effectively as “the wrong kind of Americans” (if they were firmly in either the pre-FDR or post-Reagan lineages he’d have nothing like the problem that an earlier generation of conservatives in this country would have had).  More specifically, Gove wants a strict separation, an absolute and unbridgeable delineation, between what young people experience and absorb in their lives outside school and what they learn about within it.  Far from feeling threatened by “it’s only pop culture, it’s just a bit of a laugh” (an approach which cannot but make us think of the moment when the Rolling Stones definitively lose the compelling, multi-layered power they had once had and become straight, unequivocal predictors of neoliberalism), Gove actively applauds and celebrates such an approach.  What is imagined to be “anti-establishment” – even “anti-Gove” – by a certain axis of the pop-cultural Left is actually welcomed by Gove because it shores up the financial and commercial security of his career’s sponsors and bankrollers.  The ongoing, tragic and regrettable misreading of punk which has long become its own kind of orthodoxy has now become an active hindrance to any critique of the ruling class.

That certain exams are dismissed as “too easy” when in fact they contain far more multi-layered ideas than Gove’s hierarchical approach would ever allow or countenance is entirely orchestrated to push the right Mail/Telegraph buttons: Gove in fact (in common with many others who affect to believe otherwise) knows full well that these exams (the best example probably being Communication and Culture) offer a precise challenge to many aspects of the lives and assumptions that young people have inherited, challenges he does not want them to take or be diverted by.  Young people are bombarded with a vast array of culture which they will not, in most cases, have the inherited parental knowledge fully to understand the meaning of (and will often, of course, have understandably rejected it if they do); if their education gives them the informed eye with which to view the wider culture which dominates the rest of their lives, they are that much less likely to give their money to the bulwarks of the capitalist system (very much including those whose dominance is confined to the internet era, should anyone doubt this) for which Gove is a mere placeman, a mere messenger boy when he should be an agent of destruction if he understood the full implications of his public neofeudalism (which I don’t think he does; he simply says whatever sounds best to perpetuate the Spectacle).  If their education has perpetuated and re-institutionalised the high/low divide, the “low” part of young people’s lives will most likely simply be a strengthening of global commerce in all its forms.  If their education has been run on wholly different principles, there is a much greater chance – the germ, at least, will be there – that their mass-cultural interests will lean much more towards those marginalised within global capitalism, those who pose an active threat to its perpetuation of inequality and divisions, those who are using the forms of mass entertainment to critique the methods by which it is consumed and sold, and therefore will make them, and their children, less likely to support the likes of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Gove in the long term.

I repeat: Gove doesn’t want education to ignore mass culture because he thinks mass culture is worthless trash, he wants education to ignore mass culture so that he and his ilk can more easily control and manipulate mass culture, which he thinks is great in a disgusting kind of way, that same balance of revulsion at the ugliness of the lumpenproletariat with a sort of vicarious pleasure – well, at least it’s On Its Level, at least it’s not threatening our bank balances like all those Marxist dramatists before Maggie Sorted Out The Beeb used to do – that same combination of vicarious pseudo-offence at populism with gleeful celebration of its reinforcement of their own ownership of the levers of control, which has become the default mode of many Telegraph bloggers and makes “noblesse oblige” seem the most progressive thing in the world by comparison.  Gove and his cohorts also stand to benefit massively from the perpetuation of successive generations – by now grandchildren, they hope even great-grandchildren – of neo-Claptons, my term for those principally from the middle class, and/or the small towns and shires, who take from the music and culture of the black Atlantic without giving back, and rapidly slip back into ignorance of where it came from because they have not had the educational background to contextualise it.  A strict high/low divide between what is studied and the rest of young people’s lives will make it harder for the feeling so many young people have for this music – even if that feeling in itself does not last – to be channelled into a serious break from the prejudices (whether purely racist, as perhaps in “conservative Labour veering towards UKIP” strongholds such as Rotherham, or more classist as in Gove’s own constituency in Surrey) they may have been surrounded by, and much easier for them to return to fear and insularity in the way so many sec-mod castoffs did, largely through no fault of their own, so soon after first hearing Motown.  If that tendency in British society did not exist, Gove – who, despite his current rhetoric, wouldn’t be where he is if he were a genuine paternalist – wouldn’t have a market, and neither would the entire Murdoch organisation which had given him a career long before he entered front-line politics, the career where he cleverly thought ahead long-term, in terms of how to fill the gap once the Blair illusion ended, and built his current career.

And still we have people who think “dumb rock music” will shake Gove’s private universe to its foundations, and affect to despise Gove while actually feeling threatened by the same fields of academic study – seeing them as a kind of theft, the act of dangerous interlopers merely with “middle-class” as an insult rather than “Marxist” as in Gove’s case – as he himself does!  The unfortunate truth is that a certain part of British Leftist thought is running well behind the Right’s curve on this front (I once, almost unbelievably, encountered someone on the John Peel mailing list who insisted that Cameron could not really like pop or rock music because he was so clearly of the Right: by those criteria Tony Benn in 1981 – and I can bet the person concerned supported Benn at that time – would have had to be a fascist).  Just as this part of the British Left have for years denied and refuted the fact that pop and rock music originating in the Anglosphere, and especially in Britain, have long been treated far better and with far more overall respect in the media, especially radio, of mainland Europe – have in fact seen such an approach as “posh” and “poncy”, a betrayal of the music’s “authenticity” – and just as they pretend to be “anti-establishment” while in fact actively joining in with prejudice and resentment against the one area of music which is still despised by the British establishment, they are actively pretending that Gove feels threatened by their own no-theory approach when, in fact, he loves it because it enables him to divide and conquer with far greater ease and security.  The same streak in The Guardian – a paper which still has a lot of very good things hidden in it – which thinks bad grammar or its style guide’s officious discouragement of “Hallowe’en”, “encyclopaedia” and “dreamt” (while citing Arctic Monkeys as if anyone in the present government seriously worries about them) are, like, really really rebellious, that Gove worries himself about such things every bit as much as he worries about post-structuralism and encoding and decoding infesting the academic lives of vulnerable lumpenproles.

Much the same can be said about the enforced budget cuts on the pop/youth side of the BBC which, having already appealed to populist resentment at the funding of an entire TV channel, have now resulted in the dismissal of three more 1Xtra specialists.  The inequity between the treatment of Radio 1 & 1Xtra and the ringfenced budgets of Radios 3 & 4 are clearly intended to make the latter stations’ core audiences think that the current government cares about and is concerned with their interests, that it supports their idea of fixed standards as against the passing fancies of the young.  But if the latter (or at least the conservative parts of the latter; what has made Radios 3 & 4 so singular is that they are, just as their precursors were fifty or sixty years ago, the only real place where the Guardian and Telegraph tendencies of the English bourgeoisie and intellectual elite come together, the only media outlets which really have to balance out the concerns and priorities of both) believe that, they are kidding themselves.  Gove and his ilk not only gleefully encourage the forces which really erode the old fixed standards (and which actually are the uncritical, unquestioning purveyors and promoters of mass culture which they wrongly and crudely accuse all post-68 academics of being), but they actively want such people to triumph because it would strengthen their own bosses’, their own business connections’, profit margins.  They are publicly speaking in the language of “no Paul Morley on Radio 4” diehards while viciously and vicariously laughing at them behind their backs in private.  In its way, it is a crude exploitation of snobbery, so much more cynical and harmful even than the real, putatively English Gaullist thing would be.

Nothing I have said in this probably wildly overlong piece will be news to those who have followed what has really been going on over the past two decades: huge numbers of people, on all sides, backing up people who stand for everything they don’t (whether hierarchical conservative traditionalists with Murdoch, or large swathes of a despairing, fragmented British Left with Islamists), first-past-the-post preventing any realignment beyond populist reactionary moaning, a general tone of cynicism and nihilism and negative doom-politics from all ends.  But in the case of Gove specifically, and the broader position of the present government more generally, I feel the case is more specific, more direct, nastier, more urgent.  I could as easily have written the C-word 3906 times and left it at that.  But that would have been the coward’s way out.  Just as much as was the case in 2012, this is still an emergency.  We are, frustratingly, further from a clear way out than we were then.  In England, we do not have our fate wholly in our own hands.  But we need to know what we are up against, and we need to know what it actually stands for and what it actually means, not what it suits some people’s delusionary self-image to pretend it stands for and means.  Whether 1945 socialists or souixante-huitards, we will be betraying ourselves, and history, if we do not unite.  Michael Gove, in The Times in December 2001, said that those who went on to the beaches on D-Day with the intention of creating a better society once the war was won would always, eternally, be less British than those who used it to perpetuate what he was proud to call “ancient pettinesses”.  Combine that with the current extreme manifestations of forked-tongue politics and you have something lethal and corrosive such as we have scarcely seen before.  If anyone in any of the diverging, and often actively hateful towards each other, traditions of the British Left ever doubts whether or not they should vote Labour next year, especially if its task has suddenly been made harder, they should read this piece, and think on.  Time will judge us very harshly indeed if we ignore what stands before us now.