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Tuesday, January 07, 2014 

Michael Gove's WWI bollocks.

Of all the people Michael Gove could have picked a fight with, it fairly boggles the mind that he chose to start one with Baldrick. If there's just one thing that we Brits tend to unite over, it's our love for heroic failures/idiots, even more so when they're fictional. Take David Brent, Rab C Nesbitt, Mark and Jeremy, and a myriad other examples. None however come close to Baldrick, who gets more lovable the stupider he gets, the character who named a thousand regimental goats, and coined a catchphrase that manages not to get annoying extremely quickly.

To be fair, Gove's problem isn't with Baldrick, Blackadder or Oh! What a Lovely War as it is those dastardly left-wing academics who have conspired to caricature the first world war as being accurately presented by such fictional works. For Gove, the Great War was just as necessary as the second, a war for which the blame lays firmly with Germany and its rulers' "ruthless social Darwinism" and "aggressively expansionist war aims" . To argue otherwise is to impugn the patriotism of those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice, regardless of how as Gove acknowledges, the scale of the sacrifice was a tragedy.

Gove is of course entitled to his view and acknowledges there is no "unchallenged consensus". There are also certain elements to his argument which are fair enough. Gove is however nothing if not an unrepentant neo-conservative when it comes to foreign policy, and it's therefore hardly surprising that he dislikes the healthy scepticism that our culture in general has for war, something if he was more honest he might accept is precisely because we've learned to be the hard way.

What infuriates and bewilders is just how very wrong he is about almost everything else. For probably the most cerebral member of the cabinet, he lays it on so thick that it makes you wonder whether he or one of his equally combative aides actually wrote the piece. It reads more like a typical Mail "aren'tcha sick of these lefties" article than it does from a minister looking to redress the balance.

Others with a firmer grasp on the first world war than me have pointed out that regardless of the revisionism of recent years, the conflict remains one of military disasters and mistakes, and despite Gove placing the blame "plainly" on Germany, one of the most recent acclaimed works on its origins spreads it far more widely. It's also rather baffling that Gove fingers (ooh er) left-wing academics when the historian most responsible for the view of the war as one "of lions led by donkeys", now mostly discredited, was none other than that noted communist Alan Clark. The only historian Gove names is Richard J Evans, who it so happens was one of the most senior to criticise his initial plans for changes to the history curriculum, and who, naturally, Gove quotes out of context.  Evans wrote that the men who enlisted were wrong to think they were fighting for freedom and so on in the context of the first world war leading to the second, an argument first made most forcefully by AJP Taylor (a leftie, natch) and since further refined, expanded upon and mostly accepted.  Gove then goes even further and claims Evans's criticism of his changes to the curriculum was in fact aimed at commemorating the first world war at all, when in fact he was contrasting the government's plans which he welcomed with Gove's "tub-thumping" approach to history.

More my style is to look at what Blackadder actually says about the war.  If we dispense with the caricature of the generals and Haig as being either idiots or completely flippant about the lives of the soldiers they were sending into no man's land, which clearly isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, just as how we're not meant to think that Elizabeth I was the equivalent of a batty schoolgirl with absolute power as she's portrayed in Blackadder the Second, it comes out pretty well.  Ben Elton and Richard Curtis never claimed the show to be anything other than playing fast and loose with GCSE history, and that's what it does.  The section in the final episode when Baldrick asks how the war started, as well as being funny, is fairly accurate: both ourselves and our allies had empires far beyond what the Germans had and it was precisely in that context Germany wanted to expand; it was too much trouble not to have a war, despite the fact that we could do nothing to help Belgium, our ostensible reason for joining in, due to the trains; and it's also the case that the formation of the triple alliance and the triple entente, despite being partially meant to prevent such a major war due to the deterrent aspect, failed, or as Blackadder puts it, "was bollocks".

We knew this already though, surely?  The bigger question is why Gove felt the need to disturb what had mostly been a friendly consensus on the commemorations in this anniversary year, and do so in such a dishonest fashion.  One explanation is Gove and his aides seem to thrive on confrontation, just as his hero Tony Blair did; he doesn't seem content unless he's attacking teachers and their unions, or journalists who dare to criticise his education policies.  Flying Rodent suggests it's all part of a continuing attempt to draw dividing lines and get your supporters fired up, with little in the way of fallout if you lose as nothing was at stake in the first place.  The Mail didn't imagine such a response however when it said Ed Miliband's father hated Britain, last year's article making an interesting juxtaposition with Gove's, the minister lambasting imaginary left-wingers for "denigrating virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage" when that was precisely what the paper did when it came to someone who volunteered to fight for the country that gave him sanctuary.

Closer to the truth is that Gove believes every word he wrote.  Just as he stresses traditionalism and discipline when it comes to education, he sees much in the values that began to be lost following the first world war.  Even if it took another half century for deference to truly begin to disintegrate, no longer after the Somme and Passchendaele did the ordinary man start from the position that those in charge knew better.  It brought blind patriotism into question, while it took years for the pacifism that set in after the horror of the trenches to be shaken off enough for another war to be considered.  Most telling is that he can't seem to see Blackadder is patriotic in that it does celebrate the sacrifice of those who enlisted, as one of the most moving and perfect endings to any comedy makes startlingly apparent; it's just that it does so while not absolving those who put them there from blame or responsibility.  This isn't an "ambiguous" attitude to this country, it's one that has become thoroughly British.  As with so much else, Gove wants desperately to turn the clock back.

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