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On Extremism: Does Michael Gove Risk Being Indicted by his Own Definition?

Michael Gove at Policy Exchange delivering his keynote speech 'The Importance of Teaching', Courtesy of Policy Exchange (https://www.flickr.com/people/66261959@N08) On Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Gove_at_Policy_Exchange_delivering_his_keynote_speech_%27The_Importance_of_Teaching%27_(9679846020).jpg The image was originally posted to Flikr, https://flickr.com/photos/66261959@N08/9679846020

Staff writer Lauren Whelan examines the government’s new definition of extremism and argues that Michael Gove may fit his own criteria.

Disclaimer: Some of the quotes used in this piece are of a racist, classist, sexist and homophobic nature.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Levelling Up, Michael Gove, revealed this month the government’s new definition of extremism:

Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (March 2024)

But what is the Levelling Up Secretary’s own history with ‘hatred’ and ‘intolerance’? In 2021, it was revealed by The Independent, that the minister has his own chequered past with racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist comments in his early adulthood:

Racism:

During an inter-varsity debating competition at the Cambridge Union in 1987, Gove participated in a debate titled: “This house believes that the British Empire was lost on the playing fields of Eton”.

The then president-elect of the Oxford Union, Gove, was recorded describing the people who lived under British colonial rule as “fuzzy wuzzies”, further arguing that the British Empire was “moral” because the “fuzzy wuzzies couldn’t look after themselves.” 

Gove then remarked: “Eton took the cream of the colonial system; it took fettered foreigners and turned them into gentlemen.”

Michael Gove has most recently been criticised for his involvement with the Henry Jackson Society. Gove is a signatory to the HJS’ statement of principles, an organisation which has since been described as racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant by its former director, Matthew Jamison.

Homophobia:

Gove has also been accused of homophobia for his comments regarding the economist John Maynard Keynes. At a university debate in 1987, Gove described Keynes as a “homosexualist”, further claiming “many of us are familiar with the fact that homosexuals thrive primarily on short-term relations”.

Gove’s comments were made during the HIV and AIDS epidemic, where homosexual men were increasingly the subject of discriminatory and homophobic stereotypes, such as that of promiscuity.

In citing these claims against Keynes, by his own definition, Gove has advanced unsubstantiated tropes and ideologies based on intolerance.

Sexism:

Referring to the then head of the Cambridge Union, now fellow MP Lucy Frazer, in 1993: 

“I was fortunate enough to know her before she pioneered a new development in union democracy … the example of the single transferable girlfriend”

She has done “remarkably well coming as she had done from the back streets of the slums of Leeds” Gove claimed, “she was actually capable of tempting me into bed.”

Gove went on to suggest that Frazer had engaged in sexual acts with the entire Magdalene Rugby club, with a preference for “peach flavoured condoms”, receiving jeers from his audience.

Classism:

On referring to Margaret Thatcher’s policies: “We are, at last, experiencing a new empire: an empire where the happy south stamps over the cruel, dirty, toothless face of the northerner” at a union debate in 1987.

“At last Mrs Thatcher is saying ‘I don’t give a fig for what half of the population says because the richer half will keep me in power.’”

The irony is clear as Michael Gove now holds the position of Secretary of State for Levelling up, a post entrusted to invest in local communities (predominantly in the North of England and Wales) and address national inequalities in: housing, opportunities, and infrastructure. Gove first held the post from September 2021to June 2022, and most recently he was re-appointed in October 2022 following the ascendency of Rishi Sunak.

The Conservative Party’s own extremism:

The recent redefining of ‘extremism’ comes at a time where it has been reported that a main donor to the Conservative Party allegedly said inextricably racist comments about the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott. It was revealed this month that in 2019, Conservative Party donor Frank Hester allegedly told a meeting that seeing Abbott on TV made “you just want to hate all black women”, adding he thought “she should be shot”. West Yorkshire Police are now looking into these alleged comments to determine whether they amount to a crime.

When questioned about Hester’s comments, Gove described them as “horrific” and “racist” but that he “wouldn’t want to conflate” his remarks with an extremist ideology. Though stating that he takes “the issuing of these threats very seriously”, Gove refused to say whether Hester’s comments were deemed extremist by his own definition and said that he was exercising “Christian forgiveness”.

Though Michael Gove hasn’t directly advocated for an MP to “be shot”, unlike his party’s main donor, Gove actively participated in the reinforcement of racist stereotypes, and the belittlement of his female counterpart in a futile attempt to score points with his peers.

The Henry Jackson Society – of which Gove is a signatory member – has been previously accused of transmitting far-right, white nationalist rhetoric into centre-right discourse. Its founder Matthew Jamison stated “[The HJS] for many years has relentlessly demonised Muslims and Islam“, adding that the HJS could have “helped lay the intellectual groundwork” for Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant agenda in the USA.

Finally, it was only last month that the Conservative Party’s former Deputy Chair, Lee Anderson, claimed the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was being controlled by Islamists and that “he’s actually given our capital away to his mates”. Anderson was suspended for his comments but the Conservative frontbench came under heavy criticism for not classifying his comments as Islamophobic; for Khan their silence was “condoning this racism”.

Gove’s series of impressive career advancements since he made these remarks, and since they resurfaced in 2021, is testament to the extremism that has permeated the political discourse and institutions of the UK. An extremism that some have attributed to Gove’s own efforts and political manoeuvring during his long, nearly uninterrupted stint in government since 2010.

His attempts at eradicating extremism in public life won’t begin to suffice until the extremism of his own party is addressed.

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