First, an admission: I’m not a Conservative. I know this must come as a shock to you all, but it’s a simple truth. This fact doesn’t stop me from liking and respecting many Conservative politicians despite disagreeing with their policy perspectives. Michael Gove isn’t on of them.
To me, the mark of a politician is someone who tries to stick to worthy principles in the messy, compromised landscape in which they operate. They may not always succeed in this as politics is, by definition, a dog fight between vested and other interests, as well events and egos.
Consequently, it is unfair to expect a mere man or woman to represent even their own consciences with perfection, because it takes considerable strength and influence to hold a position when you’re among a knot of ferrets fighting it out in a sack.
But Michael Gove, the education secretary, is not one of these. Every time I see his face or hear him speak, he seems like a hybrid species whose transition from Thunderbird into a fully-functioning human being is incomplete. That would explain his lack of compassion or insight gained from personal experience.
And his comments last week – to the effect that the sharply rising numbers who now rely on food banks to stave off hunger in the UK have only their own financial mismanagement to blame – illustrates the point perfectly.
Okay, so politics is a messy business and one has to understand Gove’s role as a leader of the Tory Fedayeen which seeks, Saddam Hussein-style, to attack domestic opponents – in this case, the poor.
Though he’s a minister in today’s Conservative Coalition government, he’s a member of an advanced force that’s trying to extend the political battle rightwards, well behind enemy lines. By shifting the debate ever further to the right, the aim is to create space for the government to manoeuvre a position within the front line that gives it the respectability of being moderate by comparison.
If the Labour (and disenchanted Liberal Democrat) opposition doesn’t get its act together – and, let’s face it, the signs aren’t good on that score – then the government has free rein to do as it wishes. It’s a common tactic used by up-and-coming Tory upstarts in an ideological Conservative government, and few are more upstart or ideological than Michael Gove.
Labour has predictably reacted with anger and branded Gove as out of touch, but his role is not to be in touch. In this instance, his role, perhaps self-appointed, is to send out a signal that the state may not provide a safety net for those who fall into destitution. It is an exercise in debate and expectation management. Otherwise, if one looks at the context, his comments appear monumentally uninformed.
Gove’s musings are also the latest in a line from Tory ministers that seek to deny any link between the swingeing welfare cuts introduced in April and the surge in homelessness and food-bank dependancy. Theirs is a clear strategy to kill at birth any sense of public revulsion at trashing the remnants of Britain’s social contract.
Lord Freud’s suggestion earlier this summer that food banks were seeing soaring demand because their product was free, and not because of desperation, is another example. Yet common sense tells us that welfare cuts, introduced during a time of rising living costs and falling incomes, can only lead to greater hardship, homelessness and poverty. At what point do we draw the line and accept the poor have at least the right to eat?
Also, Gove’s line about the poor’s lack of judgement on personal financial decisions is interesting when you consider the Conservative Coalition government’s implementation of quantitative easing (QE). The Bank of England has created £375bn of digital money since the financial crisis and effectively given it to the banks in the form of bond purchases to speculate with as they wish.
The bankers, of course, have used some of this money to continue paying themselves huge bonuses. Remember, these are the very same banks which, through their own issues around financial decision-making, have destroyed economies, livelihoods and jobs on a grand scale.
But while the banks are rewarded for their abject failure, the poor, the long-term sick and the disabled are having even their scraps reduced in size or withdrawn. The huge sums that have and continue to be injected into the financial system surely makes a lie of the government’s claim that it lacks the money to support the poor.
QE is the scandal of the day, having led to the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. Meanwhile, thanks to the lack of real jobs – the twilight opportunities to stack supermarket shelves on a minimum wage do not count – and the withdrawal of benefits means that whole swathes of the population, whole communities and local economies, have been effectively cut adrift.
Of course, Gove’s comments do not merely betray contempt for them, but also his economic illiteracy. To ensure the capitalist enterprise he apparently espouses works most effectively, wealth and the spending power it brings should be widely distributed.
Capitalism actually needs to be inclusive. Cutting classes of people out of the equation effectively lowers the level of economic participation and reduces aggregate spending power. If Gove and his chums really were interested in boosting the real economy, they could start by increasing benefits to the poor, who spend most of their income, while cutting benefits to the rich, who are more likely to save or just spirit their cash away in offshore tax havens.
So, not only does Gove’s policy worldview threaten social cohesion in Britain, but it harms our overall economic wellbeing, too. If either the Liberal Democrats or Labour had any independent perspectives with which to discuss these issues, then they could mercilessly ridicule the likes of Michael Gove.
Instead, being so wedded to the status quo as they are, they remain silent on much of this. Until this changes, we have to take such idiotic comments as a serious indication of where government policy could be headed.