Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Appearance and reality

Decca Aitkenhead has written a rather enjoyable hatchet job on Michael Gove, the Tory Secretary of State for Education. The article depicts him as intelligent, articulate, conscientious and charming. Then it turned on him by examining his writings and opinions, pointing out that, unlike his image as a congenial centrist, he is very much a figure from the centralising Conservative right.

The piece's strength was that it looked at substance, not image. But, as it argued, this is not Gove's own way of operating.
Why, then, do so many colleagues and political opponents see Gove in this rosier, more moderate light? It has to be because of his debater's gift for according courteous respect to opposing views, creating the impression that he's taken them on board, when he hasn't actually revised his position at all. Everyone tells me how carefully Gove listens, but when asked to recall a single occasion when he has been persuaded to change his mind, to their surprise no one can come up with one. It is a case of manners maketh the impression of a moderniser, for Gove's Tories don't need to be "inclusive", or "tolerant". The important thing is to look as if they are.
There is nothing new about this, Graham Wallas wrote about the importance of image before the First World War. However, here we are looking at a chasm between image and reality. Rather than cultivating an emotional response to ideological and policy preferences, what is in effect being created is an act of deception. What is damaging about this is not just its cynicism, thinking that people can only see image and not notice the reality of their everyday experience, but that it also feeds into a cycle of cynicism - the popular view that "they are all the same" or that "they say one thing and then always do the opposite." This has always concerned me; I see it as destructive and alienating. Turning away from the political process with a sneer and knowing smile is a conservative impulse, denying the possibility of change.

Of course it can never last. Reality always wins out in the end, as the coalition is beginning to discover. It is just that it is depressing to see politicians doing their best to prove the cynics right.

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