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Michael Gove’s Reform Plans Reinforce the Elitism he Claims to Despise
Adam Lent, Director, NLGN, 29 June, 2020

For its first 18 pages, Michael Gove’s agenda-setting speech on government reform is a powerful analysis of the profound challenges facing the UK and its political class. Unfortunately, the speech is 69 pages long. Which means the majority of the speech proposes solutions that simply are not up to the gargantuan challenges Gove identifies. The reason is the blind spot at the heart of his vision. Type the word ‘power’ into the find box, get just two matches (neither relevant) and that blind-spot immediately becomes obvious.

But let’s start with the positive. Gove highlights two problems facing the country that he wants to confront. The breakdown in trust between citizens and the state; and rising inequality. His identification of these challenges – and his analysis that they threaten the very fabric of democracy and the economy – is not original. But still it is good to see a politician of such enormous influence acknowledging them as fundamental.

Gove’s solutions to the mighty gauntlet he has thrown down to himself are relocating civil servants outside London, more diversity in Whitehall and a more experimental culture in central government. What seems to excite him most though is a focus on rigorous evaluation of policies with a particular emphasis on better data analysis.

The rationale behind these changes is clear: government is not very good at understanding what makes people’s lives better. As a result, government rarely does make people’s lives better – hence inequality – and the people no longer trust government to actually make their lives better – hence mistrust.

It’s an analysis that basically replicates everything that is wrong with the British system of government. It ignores the fact that political and economic power is heavily concentrated within elites of civil servants, politicians and the wealthy and instead concludes that those elites simply need to use that power more wisely. The result is a deeply unbalanced vision. One that identifies challenges which have been decades (even centuries) in the making but then pretends that having civil servants who “feel comfortable discussing Bayesian statistics” would make the slightest difference to addressing them.

A Government that really wanted to build trust and drive up equality would start by recognising that it itself is the problem not the solution. Power centralised in a Westminster and Whitehall largely under the control of the well-connected and well-off would be dismantled. The we-know-best culture that allows our political class the arrogance to think it has the solutions to the nation’s problems would be obliterated. In their place, a genuinely radical Government would give local communities and ‘ordinary’ people (not data wonks) a real say over the decisions that affect their lives.

There are many routes to that different world but as Jessica Studdert and I outlined in The Community Paradigm, it would start with a major programme of decentralisation of power and resources; a more participatory and deliberative approach to democratic decision-making; and a fundamental shift away from the paternalism of councils and public sector towards a community-led model. To be fair to Gove he does spend a whole paragraph highlighting the need for more devolution but even this is framed as an opportunity for Mayor-led experimentation rather than a real shift of power.

Gove tells us that this Government’s inspiration is Franklin Roosevelt. It is telling that he has chosen a President from the 1930s and 40s – decades when big was judged to be beautiful, the scientist and technocrat were all-powerful and there was a deep faith in the power of the state to improve people’s lives. It was a vision that did indeed reduce inequality, at least as long as global economic conditions favoured the approach. But it ultimately left millions voiceless and subject to the whims of a new generation of politicians from the 1980s who sought to empower big business rather than FDR’s ‘Forgotten Man’ (the gender biased language is telling in this context, of course).
To his credit, Gove invites critique but asks that it be from a position of greater radicalism not less. That is all to the good because he will need a much more ambitious programme of change if the evils of inequality and mistrust are to be scratched at, let alone slain.