In 1988, I was an ambitious student journalist at Oxford University.
Having missed out on the editorship of Isis magazine, I went for that of DEBATE: The Oxford Union Review – along with my co-editor, Samira Ahmed, now of the BBC.
At that time, the President of the Oxford Union was Michael Gove, now of the successful Brexit campaign. He interviewed us for the job – I remember Samira and I going to speak to him in the President’s Office. The Oxford Union is a large, ungainly building down an alleyway off a street with a WH Smith and a McDonald’s. Stepping into the Union was a typical piece of Oxford time-travel.
(I have a memory of seeing a gaunt, shaking Harold MacMillan standing on a shadowy lawn outside the Union, and he was still alive when I first visited the place. But I think I must have made this ghostly image up, to explain the place to myself.)
When we went in to meet him, Gove was sitting in a chair with a high back at the end of a long wooden table, very much as if he were a king.
For the magazine we commissioned some caricatures from David Lewis, another undergraduate. This is what he produced – probably the first political cartoon of Gove.
Here was a young man who had never been young. As you’ll see from ‘The President’s Address’ that he wrote for DEBATE, his opinions were very much the same then as now (in terms of tone – I’m not sure how elitism being good and experts being bad would go together). I saw him as a tweedy throwback. But I knew he was as set on succeeding in politics as Samira and I were set on succeeding in journalism.
I had to chase him a couple of times to get him to write the article. My diary records –
Jan 12 1988Apart from Michael Gove’s introduction all copy is in. We’re already getting hard copy back.Jan 13Went to the Union to check on Business and Michael Gove’s article which he has now promised for tomorrow early. Wrote a note to Samira and phoned.In the evening I went to the Union again.Jan 14Got up at 9.30. At the union by ten. Gove absent. Samira present.Jan 18Started tentatively laying a few things out but we’re missing a lot of photos. Michael Gove’s article is still absent. At 11.30 I rushed to Union. Left Michael some photocopied proof to read.Feb 3DEBATE out by? Nope.
I was going through some boxes in the attic, a couple of days after the Brexit referendum, when I saw the blue cover of the magazine. (The previous term’s DEBATE had been all marbled paper and gold lettering. Since then, Black Monday stock market collapse had taken place, and we had almost no advertising income because all the corporations were no longer looking to recruit Oxbridge graduates. Blue on white was one of the cheapest options.)
After I reread Gove’s article, I decided to post it here.
It is interesting how the not-really-young Gove describes himself:
I am, as those who know me will bear out, cursed with arrogance and sloth in equal measures.
His theme is elitism which, he says, is a good thing.
I cannot over-emphasise what elitism is not. It is not about back-slapping cliques, reactionary chic or Old Etonian egos. It is a spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition.
A typo slipped in (‘chose’ for ‘close’) to his most striking sentence. It should read:
Societies fail when the close their elites, either completely or to new influences.
Here, in full, is –