I can’t now remember the precise date but it would have been some time after the Good Friday deal had been struck when the phone rang in my Belfast home cum office and Michael Gove was at the other end.
A few years later Gove would become an MP and then a member of the set that congregated around Tory party leader David Cameron, but back then he was a leader writer for The Times newspaper, charged with writing editorials about issues of topical concern.
The matter he wanted to talk to me about was the peace process in Northern Ireland and specifically Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader and principal republican architect of the peace strategy. What I didn’t know at the time was that Gove was not looking for background for a Times‘ editorial but material for ‘The Price of Peace’, a pamphlet he was writing denouncing the peace process as a sell out of Unionism and a surrender to the IRA.
This extract from his conclusion, outlining his alternative to the GFA, will give you a taster of his views in this regard:
Therefore, the best guarantee for stability is the assertion by the Westminster Government that it will defend, with all vigour, the right of the democratic majority in Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. Ulster could then be governed with an Assembly elected on the same basis as Wales, and an administration constituted in the same way. Minority rights should be protected by the same legal apparatus which exists across the UK. The legislative framework which has guaranteed the rights and freedoms of Roman Catholics and ethnic minorities in Liverpool and London should apply equally in Belfast and Belleek.
To say that there was no meeting of minds on either the nature of the peace process or Gerry Adams would be a gross under-measurement of the gulf exposed by our rather bad-tempered exchange.
To Gove, the peace process was a Trojan horse, a piece of trickery and sleight of hand by republicans to achieve what the use of violence could not.
For me, already well into researching what would become, ‘A Secret History of the IRA’, the peace process was what it appeared to be, a massive ideological compromise by Provisional leaders which would, inevitably, lead to IRA decommissioning, the end of armed struggle and the transformation of Sinn Fein into a constitutional Nationalist party, not terribly different from the SDLP.
Not only did we not see the world in the same way but it soon became clear that we detested each other. As far as I was concerned, he was a complete idiot, and I don’t think I hid my view very well. So, unsurprisingly but very thankfully, I didn’t rate a mention in Gove’s pamphlet.
You can’t get a real flavour of how badly wrong, in almost all respects, Gove was about the peace process and even the nature of the Northern Ireland problem unless you read the full pamphlet but one striking aspect of his modus operandi is worth a comment.
That was his habit of forcing facts to fit his political world view even when eminently sensible and fairly obvious alternative explanations were at hand; for instance the IRA’s failure to start arms decommissioning by 2000 could only be explained by terrorist guile, bad faith and deceit because that is how all terrorists behaved. The idea that Adams was taking his followers down a road they would not ordinarily choose and had to step slowly and carefully, didn’t and couldn’t enter his mind, so completely closed was it to other possibilities.
I did not know until the Iraq war three or more years later that forcing the facts to fit the theory was a classic trait of neo-conservative reasoning. In Iraq the same thought process went like this: the Iraqi people were ruled by a dictator; most people dislike dictators, therefore US tanks would travel along rose-petal strewn streets lined with cheering crowds when they invaded.
Nor did I know until later that Gove was a leading light in the British version of the neo-conservative movement, in fact the leading light in the view of some. British neo-cons congregate under the banner of something called the Henry Jackson Society, so named after a right-wing, fiercely hawkish, Cold War-era US Democratic Senator.
Mostly composed of Tories, a smattering of Labour, LibDem and UKIP politicians have also signed up to the society. The former Unionist leader David Trimble is a prominent supporter.
While neo-conservatism is usually associated with American politics, thanks mostly to the role such people played in staging the Iraq war, its British manifestation is thriving and that is no accident. Neo-conservatism is just another word for imperialism and to that form of rule the British have not a little affection.
I reproduce below an excellent review of the influence of neo-conservatism in the Tory party from a Guardian article written by Richard Seymour at the time of the NATO-led invasion of Libya in 2011, a disaster in no small measure encouraged by Cameron and the neo-conservatives in his Cabinet.
Michael Gove was, needless to say, a vocal advocate of the Libyan adventure but not long afterwards lost his post as Education Minister and was dispatched to the Whips office. A less than charismatic figure with a pomposity that often alienates, Gove was seen as an electoral liability by some and it seemed his political career might be over.
But not so. Cameron has just made Gove the Justice Minister in his new cabinet where he will wield a predictably malign influence over human rights – he plans to scrap the Human Rights Act for example – sentencing policy and criminal justice. It is unlikely that he will directly influence affairs in Northern Ireland but influence can be exercised in all sorts of ways.
If I was a policy maker in Sinn Fein and I saw this man regain power and influence with the ability, perhaps, to put in place even a fraction of the attitudes and thoughts present in ‘The Price of Peace’, I would be very worried. If I was in the same position in the DUP, I would be greatly cheered.
Here is Richard Seymour’s March 2011 Guardian piece on the Tory neo-cons:
David Cameron’s recent offer to intervene in Libya, arming insurgents and enforcing a no-fly zone, was withdrawn almost as quickly as it was articulated. Objections from the US and France sank the idea. But it seems that the idea had enjoyed support from the cabinet, most of all from the hawkish faction around the education secretary Michael Gove – who is a signatory to the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society‘s statement of principles. Cameron, though no neocon, is a traditional Atlanticist, and has energetically promoted a small fraternity of foreign policy hawks since gaining the Tory leadership in 2005.
They first emerged in defence of Tony Blair and his unpopular foreign policies. Cameron himself, though he only reluctantly voted for the Iraq war, greatly admired Blair’s stance in the debacle. Even he, though, could hardly match Gove’s gushing praise for Blair in the runup to the Iraq war, in a column for the Times entitled “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony”. This passion for Blair was not restricted to his stance on foreign policy – it included Blair’s position on the firefighters’ strike, asylum seekers and tuition fees – but it was on Iraq that Gove maintained Blair was “behaving like a true Thatcherite”. Indeed, for many Tories , Blair is neocon rex.
Gove is the author of a number of neoconservative tracts. These include Celsius 7/7, which argues that Islamists are waging “total war” against the west, not because of imperialism but because of their root-and-branch rejection of “western values”. A more pointed intervention, though, was the essay “The Very British Roots of Neoconservatism and Its Lessons for British Conservatives”. In it, Gove was trying to persuade Tory allies sceptical of the adventurism of Rumsfeld and Bush that their policies were ones that the great patriarchs of conservatism would approve of. He argued that neoconservatism had strongly British roots that could be traced back to the statecraft of the Anglo-Irish Tory leader George Canning, whose pre-emptive battles with Bonapartism helped “advance the cause of freedom”. Palmerston and Churchill were also given their due as precursors to modern neoconservatism. Significantly, Gove’s trinity was entirely composed of Tories with some connections to Liberalism – if a neoconservative is a liberal who has been “mugged by reality”, many Tory luminaries from Burke onward have been instinctive Whigs turned counter-revolutionary.
Alongside Gove in the neoconservative faction are Ed Vaizey, the under-secretary of state who is, like Gove, has also signed up to the Henry Jackson Society’s principles. Similarly, George Osborne, the chancellor, is a “signed up, card-carrying Bush fan“, persuaded of the “excellent neoconservative case” for war with Iraq. His PPS, Greg Hands MP, is also a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society. Neoconservative ideas are also propagated in a number of thinktanks such as Policy Exchange whose director, Nicholas Boles MP, is another Henry Jackson Society signatory. The magazine Standpoint provides monthly ballast to this tendency.
Despite often crucial tactical differences, such as those which have emerged over Libya, there is a shared vocabulary between neoconservatives and those, like William Hague, who articulate a “liberal conservative” foreign policy. Hague has vocally supported “humanitarian intervention”, and was reluctant to criticise even the more controversial stances of Blair, such as his support for the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This gave the Tories few opportunities to land any damaging blows against New Labour. Indeed, the “liberal interventionist” stance devised by Hague and Cameron amounts to reheated Blairism.
The neoconservative agenda is not restricted to foreign policy, but includes a securitarian drive to contain Islamism and propagate “British values”. Cameron’s recent speech announcing the failure of multiculturalism can be seen as a tilt toward the neoconservatives in his cabinet. Yet the neoconservative temptation is a dangerous one for Cameron to succumb to. It offers moral and intellectual definition to an aggressive but vacillating government lacking legitimacy. If Cameron is a poorly defined leader, neoconservative belligerence can provide a far more robust political direction than the “big society”. But Cameron still needs his Liberal allies, and the electoral base for neoconservatism is smaller even than for the aggressive Thatcherism he jettisoned in opposition. If Cameron were to openly embrace the neoconservative agenda, it would be a retreat from the electoral coalition-building that has temporarily saved the Tories from irrelevance.