Gove, Javid and the point of a backstory

12 June 2019

1:36 AM

12 June 2019

1:36 AM

Michael Gove’s launch was, easily, the strongest of any candidate yesterday and he deserves the plaudits he’s getting now. Even if you dislike him, his speech is worth listening to (it’s here) and it was made without notes.

I’ve heard him talk before about the school in Liverpool he mentioned where only one pupil got decent grades. In his original telling, his point was that the distance between Liverpool and Edinburgh (where his birth mother is from) was about the same as the distance between Aberdeen and Edinburgh – so he could have ended up in either city.

But alongside the cocaine use, another disclosure in Owen Bennett’s new book is that Gove was actually born in Aberdeen. So he modified his speech, dropping out the distance point, but the principle holds good. Small accidents, sliding doors, meant he ended up in the Oxford Union and was granted all the opportunities that sprang from that – rather than dropping out of a Liverpool school.

Sajid Javid has a similar story and he has tried to tell it for the first time today with a video. It shows his wife and family, his brother Bas and his mum, still in the dress of her native Pakistan.

I got into politics because I wanted to give back to our country, which has given me so many opportunities. I’m proud to be able to share my story with you. Check out my campaign video and join me at

— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) June 11, 2019

There are some unintentionally comic scenes (when I grow up, I’d love for my family to wave goodbye to me at the door on my way to work) but overall it gives a sense of the person. What Sajid Javid needs to do now is say more about the way that his history not just explains but drives his current political agenda. His friends, still, tell the story better than he does. He feels an outsider to the political class, but very much an insider in Britain. That is to say: when he was younger, he didn’t apply for Oxbridge or attempt to go to the old merchant banks because he suspected people who look like him don’t prosper in either place.

At the time, he was right. But that wasn’t England: that was just two corners of England, one of which (the old-school-tie City of London) was replaced wholesale by the Thatcher reforms and the Big Bang. But he has never felt like an outsider here in Britain, even having been brought up by a mum who barely spoke English. He feels very much made in England – and by Conservatism. That is to say, he thinks his story was made possible not just by England, but by Tory reforms.

Javid hasn’t spoken yet (and given the time constraints, I doubt he’ll ever speak) about his education experience. His brother Bas enlisted in the Royal Navy aged sixteen and there was never any doubt in his family that he’d drop out of school too. While Boris Johnson was at Eton telling friends his ambition was to be “world king” – and who could blame him, knowing the CVs of its alumni? – Javid didn’t expect to finish school. This doesn’t reflect well or badly on either: you play the hand you’re dealt in life. But the hand Javid was dealt seldom leads to the top.

Britain has a very good educational superhighway. Get to a great school – as Gove did – and the world is yours. Get to Cambridge, as Andy Burnham did, and you can make connections that smooth your entry into politics. But Javid was not on this superhighway. He want to a school that struggled to get kids into sixth-form, let alone university. It was the kindness of a tutor who taught him for free that took him to sixth-form; the kindness of a tutor there who guided him to Exeter university. Javid needs to say more about this: the way Britain is still CV-obsessed, the way those without a gilded educational rise can struggle to find as many opportunities.

Michael Gove had parents who forfeited holidays to pay for the fees for Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen: and look at the return on that investment. Had Javid’s parents stayed in Punjab, he would perhaps have ended up in farming. And had Gove been adopted by parents in the catchment area for that Liverpool school, his story would be different.

Both men are Conservatives for a reason. People tend to join the Conservative party to improve this system, make things less unfair and do what they can to make sure people don’t need quite so many strokes of luck to make it to the top. They seek to deliver what the left only dangles. Gove was right to boast about the extra 1.8m pupils now in good or outstanding schools after Tory reforms: this is what spreading opportunity means. What we could hear, from all candidates, is why their life experience makes them join the Tory party, not Labour.

At a time when a great many Brits are wondering whether there is a point to the Conservatives, it would be good to see if its would-be leaders can give an explanation.

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