From The Drouth Issue 60
I make no doubt, Sir, but you consider me as your very good friend; although some people – and those, too, not destitute of wisdom – will not scruple to insinuate the contrary. – James Boswell, to himself.
Emails will be sifted, social media feeds probed, Russian bots quarantined and various numbers run from archaic web analytics. But inevitably, our grandchildren will reluctantly conclude that what will surely be called The Great Collapse can only be fully understood through that last recourse of scoundrels, oral history. They will therefore, have to talk to us. At least, those of us who a); survived the Great Collapse and b); were not executed by angry mobs of our own offspring. A field trip is directed to the remote archipelago in the London Flood Zone where our contagious stupidities are contained until we do the decent thing and die. The Hazmat-suited ethnographers make landfall on Chatham House Island, activate their voice recorders and waste no time in accosting a doddering resident, to pose the Great Question about the Great Collapse – ‘Why. Why did it come to this?’
As is the way with ethnographers, this Great Question is asked several times in multiple forms, so that the analysts can work back to the central dilemma from every conceivable perspective. On every transcript, one very crucial alternative phrasing of the Great Question always appears, so integral is it to their working theory –
‘Do you remember the circumstances under which you first became aware of Michael Gove?’
I suspect that it will dawn on most of the survivors that for them, on this point, there was no discernible Event Horizon – that Michael Gove just crept up on them and he was suddenly THERE, next to Cameron and Osborne and Bo-Jo. He pimped Sarah Vines’ extraordinary nastiness, said unpopular things about ‘proper’ Boy’s Own history and got into a protracted and dirty fight with English and Welsh teachers. But where he came from – and why? They shrug. ‘There’, they will say. ‘From about 2005 or so…he was simply… THERE.’
But if I have survived, and the ethnographers stick their recording device under my nose, they will be in luck. Because the Michael Gove Event Horizon is something I not only recall but can pin to a calendar date. Michael Gove came into my life in 1992, the late evening of Friday 7th August, eighteen days before my 16th birthday. I came in from work and turned, as most of my then demographic then did, to Channel 4 to wait for the delightfully brain-rotting nonsense that was The Word to come on. As a consequence I came upon A Stab in the Dark
This attempt at late night tri-partisan youth-satire was doomed to limp along for a single series and be forgotten by practically everyone. In it, the famous comedian David Baddiel, Tracey MacLeod of the far more successful Late Showand 23-year old non-comedian called Michael Gove wandered forlornly around a badly lit London warehouse, delivering contrarian monologues to an audio-visibly bored studio audience (many of the skits raising nary a titter). Baddiel spoke from a broadly Labour perspective, Gove was the Tory, and MacLeod seemed to be in the middle, presumably due to various misogynistic assumptions made about her double X chromosomes and her decision to stick largely to cultural commentary.
A Stab in the Dark lived up to its title in all the wrong ways. Writing in the Guardian [LINK – https://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jul/05/the-tv-show-i-made-with-michael-gove-still-gives-me-nightmares?CMP=twt_a-culture_b-gdnculture ] back in 2016, the day after Gove launched his bid for the Tory leadership, MacLeod remembered it as ‘a fiftysomething commissioner’s fantasy of merging The Tube and That Was the Week That Was’ – a stab of a much more desperate and metaphorical kind. It was also, as aforementioned, if we want to get literal about it, very badly lit.
I suspect that for most, MacLeod’s article was redux to something either long forgotten or entirely overlooked (there were other channels to watch in the pre-The Word hour, and most took that option). Hence the general amusement and entertainment over the spectacle of a baby-faced Gove trying to walk moodily down a subway tunnel for the trailer, as released by Baddiel on his Twitter. It detained the 2016 public for multiple seconds.
‘Most television programmes insult your intelligence. A Stab in the Dark is different. It is intelligent, and insulting. We’re opinionated, vitriolic and poisonous. And that’s only when we’re being nice.’
Baddiel tweeted the clip himself and rather meanly, noted that he ‘looked the same then. Like Of course, this was just a few days after the Brexit vote and during Gove’s rather stunning betrayal of Boris Johnson in the ensuing Tory/UK leadership crisis, so few of us were feeling particularly kind. Many were simply confused that Gove, of all people, should prove to be the most devastatingly effective political assassin of his generation, and looking for answers.
I am not necessarily going to be kind either, but I will admit that Michael Gove made an impression on me, and that his 1990s TV career may well prove instructive to our situation now. Said impression was not based on any sort of kindred feeling – sure, we were both swots with bad hair who looked all the more awkward when stood next to the fashionable dishevelled Baddiels of the world – but my first reaction was strong dislike. I was to the left and he was to the right, so it was perhaps inevitable that I should not take to him, but he was equally, fascinating as well as infuriating – clearly, identifiably Scottish, and clearly, identifiably, a conservative. Not only that, but he was clearly, identifiably, THE conservative in the show. To my 15-year old, newly politically aware self who’d just read Sunset Song in Higher English and had just been set James Kellas’ The Scottish Political System by his Modern Studies teacher, this was clearly letting the side down.
The polemical monologues around which the show was built were oddly enough, at odds with Baddiel and MacLeod but oddly suited to Gove. All of them delivered their bits direct into the camera, staring right at the viewer in Channel 4’s best approximation of an Errol Morris Interrotron. Weird Doric scaffolding and never-quite synchronised lighting added to its awkward, fidgety ‘aesthetic’, and it was only the awkward, fidgety teacher’s pet who could be earnest and unabashed enough to actually make something of it. If Baddiel always looked like he was recovering from a hangover, Gove was taking it every bit as seriously as a rejoinder to the Oxford Union debating society.
Gove’s attempts to appeal to the demographic were typically rather cringeworthy. Cuthbert’s – that is, Gove’s – first skit dealt with advances in penis enhancement surgery, while another had him in the role of the many blaggers who supplied his beloved Rupert Murdoch, as he personally rifled the bins of ‘Green’ celebrities to see if they were ‘fair weather friends of the earth’ . None of this was especially taboo – they are the schoolboy japes Gove did not get to indulge in, never having gone to Eton. It was not until Gove used the public platform given him by a show nobody watched, to speak out against other Scots trying to get on in all that London grift that he gets anywhere near. This was delivered in a waspish anti-Caledonian monologue given near the end of the series, coincident with the announcement of John Smith’s shadow cabinet. In 1992, a successful Scot in London was almost synonymous with the parliamentary Labour party, so the attack makes some sense as a partisan raid. But the style, feeling and vehemence belies this. It is, if you are willing to rubberneck at length, a one-man psychodrama which, for the benefit of posterity, I have transcribed in full:
Labour hopes to capitalise on the supposedly Scottish virtues of caution, prudence and sobriety. Labour thinks it can benefit from the public perception of the Scot as a capable professional – like Dr Finlay, administering homespun wisdom with the penicllin. Or Hudson the Butler, running a tight ship in the Bellamy household in Upstairs Downstairs. And of course there’s always the imaginatively named Scotty, the Aberdonian engineer on the Starship Enterprise…
Leaving aside the reasonable objection that Star Trek’s Scotty was actually born in Linlithgow, the psychoanalytic potential shown here is almost overwhelming. We can speculate that Gove is making sure to sneer at what he is patently not. He cannot claim the traditional imperial sinecures of the Scottish doctor, or engineer in the way these fictional compatriots can. What he fears is what even these more edifying stereotypes amount to – the backroom boy who props up the English toffs who get to run the gaff. In short, Gove is sharing with us a clairvoyant moment, where he realises that he does not know what he wants to be, but knows that he definitely does not want to be what Gordon Brown has yet to become.
All these cardboard cut out Scots conform to our image of ourselves – industrious, trusted and ingenious. But they’re all at least 20 years out of date. If we Scots could see ourselves as others see us, then we’d see this.
[ONSCREEN – STILL OF RAB C. NESBITT. Strained laughter.]
For most English people, the Scot is an unattractive creature. Most Scots in London are not professionals. They’re not in journalism, the law or in business, but in the London Underground, begging.
[Some boos and a possible Scottish audience member shouts ‘Get Away!’]
They’re handicapped only by the impenetrability of their accent.
Now Gove’s accent in A Stab in the Dark is interesting – there is more Aberdeen in his early performances, more a roll on his r’s greater than he now allows, and by the time this monologue was delivered, he has toned it down to no-doubt more reassuring levels – which raises the interesting possibility that it was Channel 4’s lefty-liberal producers who prepared Michael Gove for the Surrey electorate.
The Scots’ ability to wheedle money out of the English isn’t restricted to drunks on the embankment. Drunks in Westminster show those abilities too. A Scot rarely opens his mouth in Parliament without simultaneously extending an outstretched palm. Labour may have got it wrong in choosing John Smith. I like him, because he looks like my Dad [genuine unforced laughter here] but when the English hear his passionate appeal for a redistribution of wealth, they’ll do what they always do when they hear a Scotsman ask for money. Walk away.
There is almost too much to unpack here, but re-watching this, the sisterly query – ‘honey, are you ok?’ seems more apposite than angry dismissal. This is not a grown up’s response to the complexities of his own culture. It is not a grown up’s response to a cardboard cut out, for that matter- barely an adolescent’s. In fact, maybe we should take a good look at ourselves to ask – What did we do to him? Why is he acting out in such a cack-handed fashion?
Gove’s confusion of negative stereotypes with corrective documentary truth hardly seems worthy of someone with an Upper Second from Oxford. Even Rab C. Nesbitt made at least a passing attempt to deconstruct its core operating stereotypes. Can we ascribe Gove’s antipathy to cultural Marxism and post-modernism to his ineptitude at cultural deconstruction?
The one genuine unforced laugh in the whole bit is the comparison between John Smith and his dad. It sticks out as it seems incongruoua with the rest of the diatribe – gentler, in fact. It is reminiscent of the style of Lee and Herring, a comedy writing partnership that formed part of Armando Ianucci’s loose but influential stable of writers and performers that included Chris Morris, Patrick Marber, Rebecca Front, Doon MacKichan and Steve Coogan. Lee and Herring polished the monologues for the show and the ‘looks like my Dad’ sounds like the kind of throwaway line they would write. Lee is now a much more respected comedian and comedy writer than Michael Gove. But although he later became famous for his acerbic and witty ‘William Wallace was a paedophile’ routine, there are key differences that make it unlikely that he, rather than Gove supplied the fundamental vitriol of this piece. For one, the William Wallace routine genuinely deconstructed the underlying bigotries and foibles underpinning nationalist myths, and for another, Lee had the guts to record the routine at the Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow, rather than a closed TV set in London.
So it was this that really turned me against him, and burned this otherwise crappy effort into my memory. I forgot Michael Gove’s name, but never the spectacle of him smirking into camera. Weird feats of intellectual thuggery will do that perhaps. When Gove returned to me, again on the telly sometime in 2005, my first thought was ‘that’s that guy from that terrible programme I watched 12 years ago! What’s he doing there?’
Even in ‘92 I knew Gove had a point about our cardboard cut-outs, but whatever one thought of Labour’s Scottish mafia, it seemed grossly hypocritical. If Smith traded on his caution, prudence and sobriety, then what exactly was Gove about, then or now? He dresses, speaks and behaves like the very model of the Caledonian Satrap for hire. Mostly. In 1992 he was free range, and, judging by the acid he poured on members of John Major’s administration in interviews, held no immediate hopes for greater office. He too resembled Smith – unable to convince as a proletarian slugger a la John Reid, he took on the costume of the douce Scots lawyer-cum-parson, despite having zero credentials in either field. He was stubbornly, perhaps disappointedly, still Gordon Jackson.
The TV critic David Sexton saw through it. In (to my knowledge…) the only review of A Stab in the Dark, he defined Gove as a ‘Scotsman on the make, bumptiousness caricatured. They do not need me to tell them that the stereotypical Englishman at the centre believes that London is a stereotypical Scotsman’s noblest prospect while, simultaneously despising them for it. What is instructive is how ingrained this contempt for the Scot on the make is in the wider culture – how a hack critic, meeting a deadline for a telly review, can so easily and casually lift this particular zinger off the shelf. Gove is raving -and not in the usual nineties sense – but his Rab C. Nesbitting is happening somewhere where he knows certain parties will be more receptive to this particular form of burlesque than for example, a place like Govan.
The land of Goves, a.k.a Rab C. Nesbitt. Not John Smith.
Indeed, we might wonder whether Sexton’s barbs at the first episode served to inspire this particular monologue. Did this reminder of how the English actually viewed the likes of him prompt a self-hazing? Did Gove need to show he was willing to purge himself not just of his Scotticisms, but to further misquote Hume, any hint of allegiance to ‘the most stupid and factious barbarians in the world?’ As part performance and part psychic break, A Stab in the Dark shows that he was already learning to operate at the necessary levels of cognitive dissonance to do well in London, and forge his chibs accordingly. To sum up;
‘Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’
The summer of 1992 continued – and replete with the strong stomach mandatory in the 1990s youth television audience, I dutifully watched the rest of A Stab in The Dark’s solitary broadcast run. Gove receded into obscurity – at least as far as I could perceive. His antics in Notting Hill were a mystery to me. With no further information on what Gove was doing, thinking or feeling, I returned to a sort of post-lapsarian state of innocence.
In 1994, not long after my 18th birthday, I matriculated at Edinburgh University to study History and Politics. Gove was not a subject of study in either an official or unofficial capacity. We were apart. But during my second year I found something better, when I bought a second-hand copy of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 at a second hand bookstall run by a guy called Gus MacLean. I flicked through it then did not pick it up again for four years when, age 23, I read it in almost a single sitting. Boswell had also been 23 when he wrote the journal, just as Michael Gove was 23 when he made A Stab in the Dark. Call it kismet, but yet again, a gauche, awkward, slightly embarrassing Scottish Tory on the make – bumptiousness caricatured – had bid for my loyalty. This time, I was willing to give it.
2. GOVERNMENTAL TAXIDERMY
We must do more to satisfy our once and future ethnographers. We have recounted how we first became aware of Michael Gove, but have not really established what that awareness amounts to. Mere phenomenology, as is typical with that discipline tells us more about ourselves as subjects than it does any given object.
That is, if we are to understand the Great Collapse, we must decide whether Gove is a proper or an abstract noun.
We can dispense with the objection that as a surname Gove is already a proper noun. There have presumably been many Goves, none of whom have appeared in A Stab in the Dark, stabbed Boris Johnson in the back, or fondled Donald Trump’s golden doorknobs. This Gove’s achievements are singular. They deserve special feats of taxonomical lexicography, for this Gove is truly an original.
So, let us look at him in action once again, during his seminal A Stab in the Dark days, awkwardly trying to initiate a lively audience debate on private healthcare:
Gove: I want to ask you, in the audience, if you think its fair, or British, that money or influence should secure you preferential treatment? You sir, [pokes a microphone in his face] do you think that’s a fair point?
Audience Member: Er, that’s just a fact of life, isn’t it?
Gove: But do you think it’s fair, do you think it’s in keeping with the British spirit?
Audience Member: Em…I don’t know what the British spirit is, really…
Gove: I see…[laughs] well perhaps we can go to someone more obviously in tune with the British spirit…[moves onto another audience member]
The debate remains as lively and as stimulating throughout, largely because Gove continues to do almost all of the talking. There is no further disharmony of this sort, as Gove had invented the echo chamber long before social media was possible. Raising his hairbrush, he sings his arias and imagines himself as Lesley Ash at Last Night of the Proms…
What is instructive here is Gove’s refusal to acknowledge the centrality of preferential treatment to the British narrative. Britain’s concept of government has been profoundly shaped by the late 18th century conception of Liberty and Property, overseen by a Constitutional Monarchy where influence and idiom is the only viable means of government. Objecting to this just seems plain weird. And yet he does…because Gove’s Britain is a personal fantasy – a place we cannot, perhaps must not, also go. Never-Never Land, except we get there not through a shake of fairy dust, but what Tom Nairn called the ‘Pseudo Transcendence’ of the British state.
The Gove is therefore, of course, an animal, that may or may not fly. But of which order, exactly? Reptile? Mammal? Arthropod? Cephalopod? Mollusc? As to the last three, Gove evidently has a backbone…or, to be more accurate, Gove believes he has a backbone, which is of course, a British Backbone and in this world of post-truth, fake news, conspiracist cults, that is surely good enough to keep him walking upright in his mission, in equal parts sacred and definitive;
Short of cutting him open, Gove’s exact place in the animal kingdom must remain elusive. So we turn to comparative biology. Our other test subject, James Boswell, was an eighteenth-century writer who wrote the first and still best modern biography in the English language. He was a Scot known for being desperately on the make, and equally helpless over the matter of coming from Scotland. Both had a Johnson that they both defined and were defined against.
For the purpose of this study, I have tabulated a number of useful cross comparisons:
|Born in Edinburgh, Is adopted and raised by Labour voters and raised in Aberdeen.
|Born in Edinburgh. Raised partly at Auchinleck, by a Whig.
|Contradicted by his own parents in the national discourse around Brexit.
|Was a great disappointment to his father.
|Went to London and hung out with old Etonians, who he not so secretly hated. Is enthralled by the most powerful Grocer’s daughter in the world.
|Went to London to hang out with the cream of the English establishment. Failed. Fell in with Irishmen, Welshmen, Corsicans and a grocer’s son.
|Berated other Scots keen for self-advancement in the Great Satan.
|Tried to avoid all the other Scots on the make in London. Failed.
|Notting Hill Set.
|Attempts to be a comedian. Reports on Gay Pride March in London. Plays a Vicar on the telly.
|Known for his ‘impersonations’ at the theatre. Soaping his beard. The Cub at Newmarket. Etc., etc. ad infinitum.
|Unfavourably compares the Kirk to the Catholic Church in Scotland.
|Ran away to London to become a Catholic.
|Marries a journalist, renowned for her vitriolic columns.
|Was a journal-ist, who left his explicit diaries out for his wife to read.
|Makes inappropriate jokes on National Radio.
|Was consistently inappropriate.
|Supported the Corsicans but not the Americans.
|Sucks up to Donald Trump, Michael Portillo and Rupert Murdoch.
|Sucked up to lots of people, but not Samuel Johnson.
|Halves support for his party among teachers in England and Wales.
|Asked Henry Dundas for a job after trashing his proposed legal reforms.
|Cosies up to Eurosceptics and the far right to advance his own standing and get in on the Johnson ticket.
|Wrote No Abolition of Slavery to suck up to conservative elements in the establishment and finally secure political advancement in his final days.
|Votes to keep ‘Windrush’ documents secret.
|Again, see previous entry.
|Backs a scheme to distribute the King James Bible to every school in England and Wales.
|Ran to Hume’s deathbed to see if he would recant his atheism.
|Is peculiarly predisposed to rehabilitation and redemption in the prison system.
|A terrible Advocate who liked hard luck cases.
This table is of course, pseudoscience of the worst kind. It only holds any sort of scientific water were you to tabulate Gove against a number of other control subjects, and eliminate the same frequency of symmetries between them. Of course, the man – or animal – himself tells us that we, the people, have had enough of experts – although in reality, Gove had really had enough of acronyms. In truth, the Boswell and Gove association is due to their discovery at certain important points in my own political, cultural and lets be honest, physical development. It is, in short, pure narcissism on my part. I am sure they of all people, would understand.
And yet, these disclaimers aside, the comparisons are strangely compelling. Both were Tories paddling against the surrounding political tide, enamoured of Catholic culture and generally misunderstood. Generations thought Boswell was a witless stenographer (thanks to his compatriot Thomas Macaulay) and failed to appreciate the astonishing inventiveness of his prose style, or the performative skill deployed in gaining his material. There is surely something we are also failing to appreciate about Michael Gove.
Both of course have their Johnsons, shambling John Bull caricatures that have invaded the popular imagination. The takes are however, very different; one is a Beef-Eating provincial scholarship boy, the other an allegedly dysfunctional toff. Both sustained themselves through being industrious hacks when required. Both liked to demonstrate their erudition while chewing. One was a lowborn who possibly thought he was patronising a Scottish toff, the other an English highborn who thought he’d tamed a Scottish orphan. Samuel Johnson was a savage who came to Scotland in search of wilderness. Boris Johnson is…
We should not get overly entangled in the Gove-Johnson, Johnson-Boswell dynamic, but the inversions are interesting. If you believe what Boswell tells you, Johnson treated Lord Auchinleck as the supplicant. If true, this says much about the dynamics of the nascent Imperium. Of course it probably wasn’t – Boswell’s non-fiction was a creative work in which Johnson is a recurring character. In 1978 the critic Donald Greene goes so far as to accuse Boswell of character assassination –
[His] much touted “hero worship” of Johnson is a mask, disguising from himself and others an unconscious wish to cut Johnson down to size and establish in the end, the superiority of Boswell, the aristocratic, polished man-of-the-world, to the rugged provincial with his uncouth manners and quaint, old fashioned prejudices.’
There is truth in this – but Greene forgets that Boswell was also a provincial Scottish aristocrat. This was, it is true a considerably better social position than being one of the London sex-workers Boswell so casually patronised, and is probably better than being a Scottish adoptee with opinions currently less fashionable than Corsican Independence, but Boswell’s entire history in London, every effort he made to go on the make, his inseparability from Johnson and various Irish and Scottish diasporids, belies what Greene is claiming. If Boswell was in any way successful at being the aristocratic, polished man of the world anywhere beyond Edinburgh (and he was a bit of a fuck up there too), the whole Johnson-Boswell dynamic would have gone no further than those sparse, friendly assignations of the early 1760s. Boswell did not throw down his insignia and walk away from his past, or its constraints – but we might prefer the nuances of his elitism to Gove’s populism. Writing in the excellent New Light on Boswell (2005), John J. Burke Jr. recounts in considerable detail, how Boswell framed an argument between Samuel Johnson and Lord Chesterfield.
If he followed only his cultural bias then, we might have expected him to identify with the polished and elegant English earl when he found himself entangled in an unpleasant quarrel with a pretentious upstart. But he did not. Boswell identified strongly with the unpolished, inelegant son of a provincial bookseller (p 158).
As Burke also notes, there is strong self-critique here too – ‘A Johnson willing to stand up to a proud and somewhat devious English lord is a far more engaging, far more inspiring figure than one who gnaws at himself in his diaries and his prayers.’ This was the successful rebellion he never managed, the moment of clarity he never declaimed against the obtuse and obstructive structures of the British system he never himself, overcame. It would suit Boswell’s ambitions to make Chesterfield the victor – but he sided with his fellow-provincial.
In his failed quest to break into the heart of the English establishment, Boswell broke against a very-Govian backlash against Scots in government, given the tremendous power exercised by the Butes and Dundases of the world (who were themselves, useful instruments). And, as Tom Nairn might point out, a peripheric elite is still just that. Like Gove, Boswell lacked even his own powerbase at home, while his flirtation with Catholicism, barely concealed Jacobite tendencies and talent for spectacular feats of public idiocy made remedying that situation less than likely. He was more a partial exile than a ‘man of the world’ who could barely afford his London sojourns. His Dad never abandoned him but certainly did not like him, and being of the purer strain of Scottish Whig, was bounded by Scotland and its culture, hardly a man to match English tastes even as a John Smith style, cardboard cut-out accessory to power. We may associate Boswell with the Scottish cringe, but it is fair to say his Scottishness really did leave him with a certain helplessness down and out in the capital. We can understand why he should have given his name to paradoxical condition, prescribed to all Scottish cultural and political figures with a liking for London:
The Boswell Itch (n.)
Can’t much be bothered with Caledonia, can’t leave it alone (Ian Bell.)
As men equally alienated from the Labour/Whig establishments back home, for Gove and Boswell, the overarching British ladder was the only option. They were not alone in this assessment. Murray Pittock notes how David Hume advised Boswell to write the history of the (still young) union with England as he had of England. The rationale was that
‘… I might with great justice to my countrymen please the English by my account of the advantages by the Union … That we never gained but one battle but at Bannockburn …’
In this confession to his journal Boswell comes across as positively –
Possessing the qualities and values of Michael Gove.
And yet, I would tend to agree with Pittock that Boswell is really stitching Hume up here – showing up the more eminent figure’s cynicism and opportunism in throwing this unwanted scrap in the boy’s direction. He too, learned how to manage the necessary cognitive dissonance required of the ambitious North Briton.
We should return to David Sexton of the Independent, one of the earliest luminaries to make a field study of Gove with any real rigour. As noted, he did so in terms almost indistinguishable from those regularly applied to Boswell. If nothing else, it tells us a great deal about the durability of certain stereotypes and attitudes within the Imperium:
Michael Gove, the third presenter, is a young Scotsman on the make, bumptiousness caricatured. Interviewing studio guests, he fearlessly repeats the same question over and over again, whether or not it has already been answered. This week it was the turn of Sir Rhodes Boyson, who argued that ordinary people know more about education than experts. ‘Sir Rhodes Boyson, an eminently ordinary man, thank you very, very much’, said Gove cheerily, signing off. His talents are real but misapplied – he might do better as a Jehovah’s Witness, or as an estate agent in this difficult market.
There was a time, in short, when Gove was quite happy to defend the social utility of experts – at least against a former headmaster (There is some revelatory story about Gove and teachers that will probably only ever be unearthed post mortem). Boswell was not only a much better interviewer (though to be fair, he got to quiz Dr Johnson, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Caroline Rudd, a sort of 18th century version of Mary Astor’s character from The Maltese Falcon) but would never play to the bear pit in so ugly or obvious a fashion.
As Donald Greene has shown us, his stitch-ups were so good you could mistake them for sycophancy. But it is this bit about ‘talents real but misapplied’ which is interesting. Properly applying talent while doing something as mercurial as being on the make can, by definition, be near impossible. Boswell made three major attempts to apply his talents in the cause of political and social advancement, and they all showed that his talents unquestionably ‘lay elsewhere’. The narrative arc of his London Journal 1762-1763 is constructed from the first, a doomed attempt to join the Palace Guards, then a cushy sinecure for idle young men of breeding but entirely unattainable without major political and financial graft. Boswell senior wanted James to study law and in short, get a proper job that wasn’t being a pretend soldier or a performer of animal impersonations at the theatre (moos, barks, Tweets – the lot). He knew long before Gove ever failed to comprehend, that the British establishment lacked the ‘British spirit’ and that enthusiasm and shared sentiment was an insufficient bribe to join it. His plan to starve him of money for the venture worked perfectly. Boswell’s efforts were accordingly, to everyone but him, a pantomime. Retiring, night after night to his flat in Downing Street, exhausted from another fruitless charm offensives, he gradually came round to his Dad’s preferred scheme of studying law on the continent.
But it was through this failure and on-going embarrassment that Boswell fell into the literary circles where he naturally belonged. Samuel Johnson offered him no political advantage but genuine friendship and an example he wished he could learn from.
As to his third attempt, we will address that ugly episode much later, but his second lacked even the picaresque entertainments of the London scheme. It was a long and undignified engagement with Andrew Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, sometimes known as the ‘tyrant Lonsdale’. A well-heeled thug who controlled a sizeable chunk of Parliament, he was a potential route to a parliamentary seat – he engineered Pitt the elder’s entry into Parliament. Boswell’s desperation for selection put him right where Lonsdale wanted him, and he proceeded to exploit him in various ways, never once giving him a political seat. It was never even remotely possible – not least because a Pitt and a Boswell are social equals only on paper. The elites have their sects, just like the rest of us.
Boswell learned these truths about pseudo-transcendence 255 years ago. It was still too soon for Gove back in 2016. Even though his gossamer-thin cardboard wings tore and disintegrated in the Brexit wind, even though Britain’s sacred upper crust did not embrace him as he plummeted towards it but broke his bones, there is no sign he is ready or able to learn it in 2019 either.
A Stab in the Dark ended, and Gove returned to the newspaper columns and occasional pick up work for the BBC (another popular rediscovery from the telly archives was his reporting on the London Pride march). He also did a bit of acting, appearing as a Chaplain in the 1995 Christopher Lee film A Feast at Midnight. He languished in the Murdoch Press but gradually moved into the regenerating Conservative political machine. Writing was a major tool in this endeavour, producing a study of Edmund Burke’s influence on British politics and in 2000 published The Price of Peace: An Analysis of British Policy in Northern Ireland, funded by the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Prize and the Institute for Policy Research.
The A Stab in the Dark fan-base already knew Gove was against the tide on the Northern Ireland peace process from its earliest days, and the essay confirms his enduring hawkishness, even within the bounds of the British state (although he carefully refers to Northern Ireland – or as he frequently prefers, Ulster – as ‘our sovereign territory’):
…the British State deliberately held its security forces back from inflicting military reverses on the IRA because it preferred to negotiate. To consider what might have happened if those restraints had not been placed is to engage in a counter- factual. We cannot know if the IRA could have been defeated.
Gove will not be draw into a counter-factual. But the man who used his first televised appearance to talk about penis enhancement is not above innuendo:
The delivery of a counter factual argument through the power of ‘oo-er missus.’
And we can better understand perhaps, current Brexit pathology over the current threats to the Good Friday Agreement through this selection:
Therefore, the best guarantee for stability is the assertion by the Westminster Government that it will defend, with all vigour, the right of the democratic majority in Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.
Again, what’s interesting here is how Govian manoeuvres can seem simultaneously brash, even blunt, while remaining coy over implied and sustained violence in defence of the British state. But in contrast to the Gove of 1992, in the year 2000, Michael Gove had high hopes.
LEXICOG-GOVE-Y … A LEXICOGRAPHY of HELPLESS SCOTSMEN
Were I ever alone in the dock I would not want to be arraigned before our flawed tribunals, knowing my freedom could be forfeit as a result of political pressures. I would prefer a fair trial, under the shadow of the noose. – Michael Gove, 1997.
Finally then, some answers. We can now reveal that Gove is both a proper and abstract noun, denoting the creature and a process derived from its observed behaviour. But is it also a verb? There is for example, no Boswellian verb. We can use Boswell as a title, a descriptor of our behaviours and values (see Arthur Conan Doyle…) but you do not, to my knowledge, ‘Boswell’ someone. Lexicographers may want to mull Gove over a little more, but I would submit that it is definitely also a verb – because Gove, as we know, is a man of action.
Of the verb gove’s typical actions, there is unquestionably something that is to do with gouging, an underhanded slice. To support my case, let’s look again at the root noun, enhanced with the benefit of 255 years of hindsight:
To gove at someone, is to – if I may quote our vernacular as imagined by Dudley D. Watkins and Archie Low – ‘wound sufficiently to put their gas at a peep’. Not to bruise, perhaps – that evokes the allegedly noble art of boxing – or to cut or slice, but to make a burrowing cut that bleeds, but falls far short of a coup de gras. Were S. Johnson still in action, I would probably make the following submission to his dictionary:
We know of the various grubby, nasty and ugly actions that informed this definition. No one saw A Stab in the Dark, but everyone watched its sequel A Stab in the Back. Johnson and Gove plotted the downfall of Johnson’s Bullingdon club enemies together, and then Gove dissolved the relationship, announcing his own surprise candidacy for the Tory leadership just before Johnson was supposed to.
Whatever creative licences he might have taken, Boswell stayed loyal to his Johnson (in all but one, crucial thing, being that third attempt at political influence). The Boswell-Johnson dynamic remains a complex relationship between two artists. The best we can say about Gove-Johnson is that Boris should have listened to Gove’s advice and walked away from his extended palm. As history relates, Johnson crumbled, Gove came third and Theresa May, the Vicar’s daughter became the patsy for a British establishment with absolutely no idea as to what happened next.
This event is not the sole basis of our definition. Gove has goved others; England and Wales’ teachers he wounded just enough to earn their hatred, but not enough to destroy them. The Scottish Labour Party waited so long for Gove to take them down they had to go and do it themselves. Gove has thus, been merrily goving since A Stab in the Dark. It was just the sequel, 24 years later that really landed on both the audience (and its intended victim) and ensured an already volatile situation would get far, far worse.
This makes Gove an odd Darwinian prospect – how can a creature that gives his name to a verb based on ineffectual violence survive? It may be the power of that Tinkerbell, gossamer-winged belief coming to his aid. Or it may be that his survival is illusory. Johnson will return – and he shall not forget.
But when Gove did it – when he betrayed his Bullingdon boy sponsor as if he were his social equal, I realised that he actually believed he was as entitled to step over Cameron’s twitching corpse into Downing Street. We tend perhaps, to affirm our own sincerity and disbelieve it in others. That is, our enemies are always disingenuous. Gove could be mistaken for a hired thug, a henchman who did not really buy the meritocratic myths, the indivisible union where everyone and anyone can rise into the heart of things. That is probably how he is commonly perceived by the likes of the Yes movement, or Momentum. And yet his actions in the post-Brexit bloodbath suggested otherwise. He really does seem to believe in the ‘British Spirit’. That anyone can vie on a level playing field with old Etonians. That an appeal to the people would be enough…
And so amid all the other seething emotions I felt back in July of 2016, I had to contend with the least expected of all; that of being strangely endeared to Michael Gove.
We can recover from these afflictions. His loathsome toadying to Trump and unwarranted return to political responsibility largely cured me of my dangerous sympathies. But sometimes remedy is not enough; forensic medicine is needed, in order to mitigate further chronic episodes. Hence this long, bloated exercise we have together endured. I am not really that interested in sending a warning to posterity, any more than Gove genuinely thought he could arrest the onset of so many Scottish politicians back in 1992. This is about excising personal demons, of making a psychic break, of receding from dangerous sympathies. And so, rather scandalously I can waste so much space writing about the peregrinations of a bunch of privileged white men, most of them painfully lacking in self-awareness.
Boris Johnson is a Twat. I do not mean this as an X-Rated Bash Street Kids jibe. In the Trumpean-Farageist era that led to the Great Collapse, the commonly understood (in the UK) application of this particular slur emerged as a carefully calibrated political construct, which cloaked itself in the fleece of its gentler, almost bucolic cousin, the twit. Boris Johnson was one of many ambitious thugs who realised they could camouflage themselves as Twits.
The twit fumbles and bumbles in a state of confusion and near-innocence. If they do harm, it is done collaterally. Their stupidity is all about the area of effect. Bertie Wooster is a twit. So was Boswell for 99% of his time on earth.
The stupidity of the Twat, is of a different, far more sinister order. The Twat’s stupidities and pratfalls resemble those of the twit, but they occur in the course of grasping, reaching, preening and vehemently pushing others down.
And yet, we typically refuse to see the Twat as dangerous, because the possibility that someone so stupid, so lacking in merit should nevertheless, even be in such a position to harm offends our common sense of ethical metaphysics. So we convince ourselves the Twat is a screw up. We HAVE to convince ourselves that our Twat is more akin to the gentle Twit, even in the face of the available evidence, if only for the sake of our own sanity. We do their work for them.
And so when Gove’s Mr Johnson entangles himself on a zip line whilst waving the union flag to promote the 2012 Olympics, we know what he is – that he is most definitely out to deceive – but convince ourselves he is not that thing – that he is the more amenable and comfortable twit. But deep down we know.
And that is Mr Johnson’s genius – he has created, and convinced us to play an endless Augmented Reality Game of British Public Life. Because he also gives us just enough truth to understand he is a Twat – and thus competent – rather than a Twit. As Boswell discovered, to be a Twit is fatal to political advancement; Twits are indulged, maybe even coddled. They do not rise. Politicians must be able to act meaningfully and with precision. This is something the other type can do – indeed, it’s often through such actions we see them for what they are. But we prefer to play the game. We are all escapists now.
And so there we have Boris, the irresistible T-word – the political cuckoo who has you denying his essential characteristics even as he gobbles all the food and belly bumps all the other chicks out of the nest, profiting from our desperate coping mechanisms. We could take cold-blooded, reptile comfort in the knowledge that Boris Johnson’s operations have since landed him in a Hellscape of his own making. Until just recently, only a seditious whisper away from Theresa May’s job, but in a setting where no-one in their right mind would want the prize. Taking the premiership was never be this easy, and never this impossible. His inertia, combined with subsequent desperate gestures was never be so revealing of his fundamental cowardice.
At least Corbyn is protected from these existential problems by his own incompetence.
But what of Gove? Was he also a Twat? He was I think, a twit, but they can mutate. Boswell did. For much of his life his own Twittery prevented his own political advancement, and so he became instead, an artist. And yet his desperation and discomfort grew so that, in his later years he made that third, most pathetic effort to climb through the least of his literary talents – his Godawful poetry – to make an ugly and inexcusable overture to the Anti-Abolition Lobby by writing No Abolition of Slavery in 1791. It is a far worse thing than A Stab in the Dark or The Price of Peace. A decade before, Boswell had written approvingly to the staunchly anti-slavery Johnson of the Scottish Court of Session’s ruling in favour of former slave Joseph Knight’s bid for freedom. In his last years, Boswell the engaging, well-meaning Twit became a T in his desperate and greasy determination to finally, get on. In that he truly betrayed his Great Cham, and all the better parts of himself.
We do not need to forgive Boswell for this, only acknowledge that the Boswell of 1777 was a better man than the bloated husk he was in 1791. It is hard to imagine Boswell’s later allegiance to the violent and systemic subjugation of other human beings would have survived direct experience of it. While Johnson was the more abstract thinker and thus, more solid in his views, Boswell was a fieldworker, he had to see, hear and touch, gauge and appraise opinion. His knowledge was always embodied. He was the kind of man who could sit by the deathbed of the atheist who wanted him to write the inferior version of his History of England and speculate on the physical space taken up by a person’s soul. Boswell works as a sophisticated and prescient artist who happens to be a massive Twit. Him I like. The dilapidated drunk who had retreated from his own researches, then throws in with slavers, I can only despise.
But Gove? What – or where – is he? A part of me wonders whether, despite it all he is a Twit who failed at being that other more terrible T-word. But I also fear that even in making that step – in wanting to be it – the mutation in Gove was irreversible. He did not do anything as terrible as Boswell, but it was just as permanent. And my fear suggests I remain uncured of my sympathies. Since that astonishingly graceless moment in July 2016, Gove’s behaviour has been unpromising. He could have stayed where he had fallen, wallowed among the people he so persistently claims to represent against the elites it and perhaps invent a valid and exciting literary form. Or even just a better TV programme than the one that launched his excruciating career. There can be great honour in that. But I suspect there is no way back. For that is the price we pay, every time we –
 BELOW STARES. The Interrotron is a device used by documentarians to facilitate direct eye contact between interviewer and interviewee.
 GOVE-IAN ENTHUSIASM. Gove’s work on A Stab on the Dark was frequently desperate but not without its moments. Unlike Baddiel who it was clear even to my 16-year old self, was phoning it in, Gove was taking this gig seriously. He often appeared clipboard in hand, and treated every interview like Frost-Nixon. Unlike Frost, he showed ice-cold ruthlessness in his dealings with government ministers even though they were fellow Tories. His quasi-social liberalism was evident, if wince-inducing; he defended homosexuality in the armed forces via General Kitchener’s wardrobe and the even then, shopsoiled exemplar of the Spartans – although terms like ‘mattress muncher’ make it very much of its time. He also compared Prince Charles to Adolf Hitler, interviewed Dave X, a masked cockney robber on crime statistics (a spectacle every bit as ludicrous as it sounds) and made a presumably tongue in cheek proposal for merger with Germany. What I’m saying here, people, is that Gove was THE BEST THING IN THE SHOW. This was when he peaked.
 THE BEANO. A Stab In the Dark is much more entertaining to watch when imagined as a sort of Neil Gaiman grimdark version of The Bash Street Kids, where David Baddiel is an adult Danny (the strip’s Dennis the Menace substitute) and Gove a barely grown up Cuthbert Cringeworthy.
 DISTAFF COUNTERPART? Tracey MacLeod could be Toots, the sole girl among the BSK, but if we need someone more recognisable, then perhaps Minnie the Minx. Theresa May, who was NOT in the programme, is unquestionably Beryl the Peril from The Topper.
 BASTARDS. Gove is against elites, and for the people. He has expressed his dislike of Etonians, and his wife once wrote a column about her willingness to use public toilets. And yet in A Stab in the Dark he also takes time to sneer at polytechnics, the principle of widening access to Higher Education and measures to keep young people in school. This is not necessarily disingenuous. Kids who stay in school and go to the uni were after all, likely to disappoint their working class parents and vote Remain.
 LIES. I have not transcribed this in full. I have actually started just after the opening joke, which compares Gordon Brown to Woody from the Bay City Rollers.
 GEOLOCATION. Scotty’s point of origin is in fact, a point of intense theological debate among Star Trek fans – there is a school of thought that prefers Elgin but this of course, is not Aberdeen either. Scotty did confirm to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk that he had gone drinking there – but this no more makes him Aberdonian than it makes Gove a Londoner. Gove is often wobbly on these things. In another monologue he misidentifies John Smith as ‘an Edinburgh Lawyer’. It is true Smith was admitted to the Bar, but his seat was at Monklands, he lived in Dunoon and was born in Argyll. Gove was born in Edinburgh but raised in Aberdeen. So he isn’t an Aberdonian either.
 THE (IG)NOBLEST PROSPECT A SCOTSMAN SEES. Armando Ianucci is a Scottish-Italian producer, writer and back-room denizen who shaped contemporary British comedy and satire in ways previously reserved for Oxbridge elites. The raw satire of Chris Morris, Steve Coogan’s end-of-the-pier personas on acid (Alan Partridge), Stewart Lee and Richard Herring spiky take on youth culture, The Thick of It and then Veep skims the surface over much deeper creative currents. A back-room boy who had nevertheless designed, furnished and owned it. As both comedian, creative force and yes – adventurer in the establishment, we must conclude that Ianucci has been conspicuously more successful than our hero.
 SALVATION. Lee knows more about Scotland than most metropolitan commentators, although he is definitely of the school that sees us as a necessary progressive counterweight to the dark heart of Englishness. He may have no qualms about tearing down Mel Gibson, but he is happy to play into the traditional messiah myths of the Scottish unionist left.
 DRAMATIS PERSONA. Jackson played Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs, and was the second token Scotsman who failed to escape in The Great Escape. Also famous as Cowley, the ‘Not-very Civil Civil Servant’ who was the boss in The Professionals, a TV series made by London Weekend Television in which three trained killers from the regions staved off threats to the British way of life.
 HACKNEYED. To point out the lineage of this insult among many levelled at Scots looking to make it in the British establishment would hardly be original. This dynamic will be familiar to a regular reader of The Drouth, assuming of course they have actually read this magazine, and weren’t just putting it out on the coffee table.
 TOPONYMICALLY CONNECTED. The surname Gove is of medieval Scottish origin and derived from the Old Gaelic ‘gobha’, meaning Smith, which may also be the derivation of Govan as ‘place of the Smith’. I do not know whether Michael Gove has ever gone to Govan.
 STAB. A chib is a knife or dagger, and the associated verb means to stab. It is probably a variant to the word shiv, and the Romani chiv that may have been the carrier across the Western world. This is testament to our wonderful shared indo-European heritage of knife-crime.
 GOVIAN DISCLAIMERS. In fact, Gove said in his interview with Sky’s Faisal Islam [ LINK HERE CHRIS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGgiGtJk7MA ]– ‘’The people of this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.’ Islam actually interrupted Gove mid-sentence, leading to the ‘The British People have had enough of experts’ paraphrasing. It is interesting firstly, that Gove’s courageous and not at all disingenuous stance against the IMF and the OECD should have been misunderstood due to an interviewing style as abrasive and bruising as his own and that secondly, a man educated at one of the Very Best Universities should mistake abbreviations for acronyms. To my knowledge, ‘Imff’ and ‘Oekid’ are not words in the English language.
 HE WASN’T THAT INTO HIM. Boswell is popularly caricatured as Johnson’s lapdog and lickspittle. His first meeting as recorded in the journals belies that – Johnson clearly pursues him. Like B. Johnson, S. Johnson seems to have shown public distaste for Scots yet was inclined to make use of their illusory values of caution, prudence and sobriety in compiling his Great Works. Boswell has greatly benefitted from the opening up of his archives and personal journals, which has allowed a nuanced and sympathetic understanding of both him and his status as an artist. Perhaps one day Rupert Murdoch will hack Gove’s iBook and we’ll come to a similar level of sympathy
 BASH STREET KID. Unlike Cuthbert Cringeworthy, Gove has always been happy to upset teachers. We may have to revise our earlier casting decisions, but I am immovable on the Theresa May/Beryl the Peril issue.
 MEDIUM AND EGO-MASSAGE. I have written or attempted to make artworks about this book so many times I have lost count. It is an obsession, clearly. That this obsession is of the same order as that I clearly have for Michael Gove’s body of work on A Stab in the Dark is something I would vehemently deny.
 PHANTOM BACKBONE. All of this stuff can also be found on Wikipedia.
 FINALLY. A joke may be inevitable, as was Gove’s recent political resurrection (as Minister for Justice and now No Deal Brexit) but that does not make its event horizon any more enjoyable.
 DATA DEFICIENCIES. It is possible that B. Johnson did not watch A Stab in the Dark when it was broadcast in 1992.
 BROKEN MIRROR OF PRINCES STREET. Gove is in other words, better at being a comedian than he is at being Machiavelli. More Harry Lauder than Cosimo de Medici. I refer you again, to David Sexton’s revelation that his ‘talents are real, but misapplied’.
 NINTH CIRCLE. Given that Johnson has been kind enough to take us with him into this Hellscape, this comfort is practically sub-zero