Michael Gove: 'This is a rainbow country with a warm, sunny welcome, for all'
Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove in his Westminster office | Gove portraits credit: Baldo Sciacca | Other photography credit: Alamy
Preserving the United Kingdom in its current form is a project closer to the heart of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove than perhaps any other minister. But despite working flat out to keep the union together, he tells Rosa Prince he can still find time to boogie
Not on his watch. That is Michael Gove’s lodestar, the message he has for nationalists, whether they be the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and her new allies the Greens, Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland or any Welsh separatists who might get ideas: the union is not for breaking.
It is a message in which he has confidence. Unlike some unionists who fear the threads that tie our United Kingdom are unravelling – particularly with the success of the SNP in Scottish elections last spring and the pressures on the tinderbox that is Northern Ireland wrought by Brexit and the infamous protocol he helped negotiate – he is serenely confident our four nations will remain as one.
Gove’s Scottish background explains his particular interest in maintaining the union, giving him an investment perhaps few of his cabinet colleagues share. He is a believer in “plural” identities – when he took his son to the England v Scotland game at Euro 2020, Gove Jr was cheering for the Scots.
And while Gove Snr has made his home in London for the past 30-plus years, he continues to go back to Scotland frequently, for both work and play.
One gets the impression Gove finds it easier to relax in his hometown of Aberdeen – indeed, a few days before we meet, toe-curling videos of a refreshingly unguarded Gove throwing shapes in one of the city’s nightclubs were circulating on social media, adding much to the gaiety of the nation.
He laughs when asked if he anticipated his appearance at the club would cause such a stir, saying he was a “little bit” surprised at the resulting outpouring of mirth.
Aberdeen is where I was brought up, I love Aberdeen, I love Aberdeen’s nightlife
If anything, he seems bemused by the reaction, describing his decision to hit the town on a bank holiday weekend when all was quiet politically, domestically at least, as a perfectly natural one.
“Aberdeen is where I was brought up, I love Aberdeen, I love Aberdeen’s nightlife,” he says. “It was a relaxed bank holiday with a good friend. It was a nice way to end the summer.”
It was a rare weekend off for a politician known to his officials as CDL, who has made the role of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster more powerful than perhaps any previous occupant (although he demurs, listing influential predecessors including Oliver Letwin and David Lidington). He concedes his tentacles reach far, but says the impression that he secretly pulls the levers of government on behalf of a diffident Boris Johnson is off.
“You need someone to sit in the chair in order to make sure that all government departments are working well together, whether it’s preparations for Brexit, Covid, resettlement of citizens from Afghanistan, or whatever it might be.
“[But] you are just there to support. And so therefore one should be aware that success in this role is delivering success for the Prime Minister. It’s ultimately about working across government for government as a whole. And, actually, if it is the case that individual government departments get the credit that they deserve for the work that they do, then that is the principal satisfaction. One should not be front and centre; it should be the departmental ministers that are, and you should try to make that happen.”
Gove may not remain CDL for much longer. As we go to press, rumours swirl of a reshuffle that could see a move, perhaps to the Home or Foreign Offices. If so, it seems likely he will maintain his interest in the union. Gove’s perception of the UK is a benign one. He sees a country in which the peoples of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are broadly content to remain tethered to their larger neighbour England, both because it benefits them materially and as a result of a shared humanity and outlook, from our Olympic team to the National Health Service and tackling climate change, not to mention centuries of history.
“It’s a family thing,” he says, “It’s a family nation … it’s also a nation of families, relationships that have stood us in good stead for generations, and which have equipped us very well for the future. We draw strength from the fact that we work together, and it would seem to me to be a backward step to say that my children would be a different nationality from their grandparents.
“And it would seem curious that we would be creating new barriers between the people who shared the NHS, who watched the BBC, who share the same language, values, history and hopes for the future.
“If you look at the United Kingdom, it is, I think, the most successful multinational multi-ethnic, multicultural state in the world. It is a model for others. That’s a success story. And it’s a success story because of the nature of the United Kingdom – it is not a country that is based on exclusivity… as we’re seeing with the support that we’re giving to Afghan refugees and … we see it in the in the offer that we made to British nationals from Hong Kong.
“This is a rainbow country with a warm, sunny welcome for all and it’s a warm home. And it’s a warm home because we’ve drawn on the traditions and the experience of people from around Scotland, Wales and England, all being comfortable being within the structure of the United Kingdom.”
I actually think the case for the United Kingdom is stronger every day
Gove’s confidence that the people of the smaller nations will not, ultimately, wish to gamble on a future away from England means he is relaxed about the suggestion by his colleague, Scotland secretary Alister Jack, that a fresh independence referendum could be triggered if desire for this “settled” at around 60 per cent in opinion polls, a number Gove feels is both about right and unlikely to be reached any time soon.
“Over the course of the last 12 months, we’ve seen how Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom,” he says. “The success of the vaccination programme, UK-wide, was an example of how our broad shoulders carry all our citizens forward.
“I actually think the case for the United Kingdom is stronger every day. The strong impression I have is that over recent months support both for independence, but particularly for a referendum any time soon, has fallen back.
“The Scottish government is going to bang the drum as much as it can on this particular issue. But there is no discernible appetite at the moment, amongst a settled majority of the Scottish people, for an independence referendum.
Rejecting Sturgeon’s recent claim that the deal between the SNP and pro-independence Greens makes a fresh referendum “undeniable”, Gove is highly critical of what he sees as a somewhat cynical pact.
“[The deal] reinforces the sense that the SNP are putting the constitution ahead of everything else … rather than trying to think about economic recovery.
“The Greens have a record on growth, the economy, investment, the oil and gas sector, which is particularly worrying, just as we contemplate what we need to do in order to make sure that Scotland plays its part in the vanguard of our economic recovery.
“As you know, I’m from the northeast of Scotland – we need to have a fair transition from oil and gas to a wider mix of energy supplies, and the Green Party’s approach is one I fear means that we [would] not get the type of investment and the type of support and the economic security that we need.”
I really enjoyed working with Dominic [Cummings], and I’ve got a great affection for him. But some of the stuff he said recently, I profoundly disagree with.
Gove ran twice for the top job of Prime Minister, in 2017 and 2019, finishing third on both occasion – “I got the bronze medal twice,” he jokes.
Asked how the country would be different had he won rather than Johnson, and for once he does not have a ready answer: “Oh, God, I don’t know. But I think it’s probably fair to say that … everybody made the right decision.”
Gove’s old Vote Leave compadre, Dominic Cummings, has made abundantly clear his view that the country would have been better served through Covid with Gove at the helm.
Looking visibly distressed, Gove says he utterly rejects his once-close friend Cummings’ characterisation of Boris Johnson’s government as chaotic, and his likening of the Prime Minister to a “shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.”
“I really enjoyed working with Dominic, and I’ve got a great affection for him,” Gove says. “But some of the stuff he said recently, I profoundly disagree with. I haven’t spoken to him for a long time.
“I’m sure, well into the future, we’ll have a chance to chat and both reminisce and also remonstrate with each other. I don’t want to be disobliging, because we’ve been through a lot together in the past, but it’s not easy when someone that you’ve enjoyed working with puts forward an analysis with which you profoundly disagree, and in a way which I think is wrong.”
Returning to the topic of the day, Gove also rejects disparaging comments from opponents, including some in this magazine, suggesting Johnson is not on top of the union brief, insisting the PM is “totally committed”. Privately, many of those occupying senior positions away from London whisper it is Gove rather than the Prime Minister who calls the shots when it comes to prioritising the relationship between the regions and nations.
One area he takes a keen interest in is ensuring fair representation for English voters. He is on good terms with many of the metro mayors, including the majority from Labour. But having originally backed EVEL – English Votes for English Laws – Gove is now taking steps to row back, on the grounds that the procedures are unwieldy.
Northern Ireland is another area of concern, with demographic forces apparently working inexorably towards a border poll, a process which may be exacerbated by the turmoil around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Gove is characteristically sanguine about the prospects for deescalating tensions, believing all sides will recognise they have an interest in working together.
“Everything is resolvable,” he said. “There’s a community of interest between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland in making sure that Northern Ireland is prosperous. In all the conversations that I’ve had with the first minister and the deputy first minister … everyone agrees they want to make the mechanisms work. They don’t want to see anyone suffer economically, they don’t see anyone’s daily life adversely affected.”
It is sometimes a challenge for unionists to compete with nationalists when it comes to romanticising their cause. However, as with Scotland, Gove is able to articulate clearly what he believes would be lost for the whole of the UK were the British Isles to break asunder. He describes the writers Seamus Heaney and CS Lewis as part of this country’s shared cultural heritage, and talks affectionately of Northern Ireland sporting greats, including Mary Peters and George Best.
“Even though some people see Northern Ireland as a place apart, over the last 100 years it’s made an amazing contribution to the UK. What I’d like to see is small “u” unionism, a belief that Northern Ireland flourishes in the United Kingdom, whatever your community background, becoming the new normal.”
If Gove is confident issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol will be resolved before long, how does he think Brexit is going more broadly? Again, he is bullish, pointing to the fleet-footed vaccine procurement operation as one obvious proof that leaving the European Union was the right move for the UK.
Gove has said he agonised over whether to support Vote Leave or back his friend, the then-prime minister David Cameron in choosing to Remain. He says now the deciding factor was his sense that the EU was inexorably moving in a direction the Britain could not countenance, towards ever greater union, a project as unacceptable to Gove as a schism within the UK.
It is a very pure form of national conservatism: Gove just wants things to stay the same. And that includes being able to boogie with old friends in an Aberdeen nightclub, no matter how high his profile now.
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