Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Greasy Pole: Ouch! What A Lovely War (2014)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the pitiless military killers of World War One there was reputed to be a German General who named one of his problems as the determination of British soldiers to 'fight like lions'. But then – 'lions led by donkeys'. More recently there has been a Minister of Education in a British government who scorned anyone who sympathised with that German assessment: '...an unhappy compulsion ...to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage', regarding the war '... through the fictional prism of drama such as Oh! What A Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths'.

To put the matter into perspective – Michael Gove is the MP for the rock-solid Tory seat of Surrey Heath and the Secretary of State for Education. As a key member of the Cameron government – and of the Notting Hill Set – he has lived up to his reputation for managing education not as some kind of personal encouragement to develop but as formal discipline towards a designed conclusion. In this way Gove has provoked the anger and despair of committed teachers but has recommended himself to his leader. After Cameron recently announced that the centenary of the start of the War would be distorted into a celebration of allegedly unique British courage and humanity, Gove was quick to approve: 'The ruthless Social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified'.

But this misbegotten view of an historical event which cost the lives of tens of millions and left the world even less secure than before contains some crucial errors. The persistent denunciation of the war, of its bungling leaders and swamps of casualties, is by no means exclusively the work of 'Left wing academics'. Among the most publicised of critics was the late Alan Clark, whose book The Donkeys was a bitter exposure of the generals who ordered the British Army into so many historical calamities. But Clark would have been contemptuously amused by the idea that he was 'left-wing'. He inherited, apart from much else, the mediaeval Saltwood Castle in Sussex. At first he was rejected by Conservative Central Office as too 'right wing' but he eventually became a Tory MP, at first for Plymouth Sutton and then Kensington and Chelsea. He was a keen admirer of both Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.

Another example which undermines Gove's slapdash thinking is Niall Ferguson, whose opinions on the War were markedly controversial – for example he argued that in 1914 Germany was forced into a preventive war by the pressures of British diplomacy which encouraged a regional war to develop into a world conflict. In detail Ferguson has many differences with Gove's crude acceptance of the official Tory line but he is far from a 'left-winger' for he consistently describes himself as 'a Thatcherite'. It is useful also to mention a man who actually endured the trenches and all that followed. Harry Patch died in July 2009. He was known as 'The Last Fighting Tommy' – a lone survivor of the war during which he endured, apart from others, the Battle of Passchendaele. A patriotic Tory, his opinions on his time in the trenches are all too clear: the war was 'not worth one life'; the generals and politicians were 'organising nothing better than mass murder'.

Among the events to mark the centenary will be organised visits by school parties to the battlefields, to see where the trenches were, clamber into the dug-outs, stand in the graveyards, look up at the massive memorials ...There has to be some interest, accentuated by Gove's speech, about these visits. Will the children be free to make their own judgements about what they see, about the war and what came out of it? There is nothing in Gove's record to encourage any confidence that the visits will not be heavily stage-managed to ensure the right – from the point of view of the government – outcome. Consider that one of the first actions of the Ministry of Education when Gove took over was to provide every school with a copy of the King James bible inscribed with the message 'Presented by the Secretary of State for Education'. Before that he had unwisely trumpeted his version of the outcome of the war in Iraq: 'The liberation of Iraq has actually been that rarest of things – a proper British foreign policy success... now a fully functioning democracy with a free press, properly contested elections and an independent judiciary'.

When he was still a baby Gove was adopted after his mother could not cope, in the stresses typical of the year 1967, with the demands of looking after a child. Gove's adoptive parents were caring and supportive but he admits to always being 'noisy by nature'; he later wrote to some of his school teachers to apologise for his disruptive behaviour. Importantly, Gove's adoption was rated as a success, enabling him to attend private school, to graduate at Oxford and to hold down jobs as a journalist with The Times, followed by his first steps up the parliamentary Greasy Pole. But his progress has been notable for a succession of manufactured crises. In February 2011 a judge ruled that his decision to abolish the Building Schools For The Future programme amounted to 'an abuse of power'. In March 2012 he and his staff were said to have destroyed email correspondence to frustrate Freedom Of Information requests. In addition to such examples Gove has been the subject of an extraordinary number of protests of No Confidence from various teachers' organisations including one in May last which drew complaints about systematic bullying, fear and intimidation - and this by the Minister responsible for overlooking children's education. But there is nothing to indicate that there is likely to be any change. Gove's response to it all – and to the appalling misery and bloodshed of the First World War – means that the only proper response to him and his kind is, in a word which every teacher will understand – exclusion.