Interview: Michael Gove

"I’m scared stiff of flying but I will go to Israel"

By Martin Bright, September 28, 2010
Michael Gove: there are many instinctive supporters of Israel in parliament

Michael Gove: there are many instinctive supporters of Israel in parliament

On Israel security:
Its position will be strengthened by doing properly by its neighbours

On faith schools:
They equip people brilliantly for multi-cultural 21st century Britain

On air travel:
I'll follow Tony Blair's example and have a couple of pints first

There was one matter I had been wanting to clear up with Michael Gove for some time. I had heard that the Conservative Party's most consistent and passionate defender of Israel had never travelled to the country itself.

I thought it rather strange that someone who took such forthright positions on the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East and the right of Israel to defend itself had not travelled to a country he championed so vigorously.

It turned out that the explanation is a simple one: Mr Gove does not like planes. "It's true. I've not been to Israel… I'm not a great fan of flying," he said.

However, it also turned out that the Schools Secretary has flown in the past year in the line of duty, and is due to travel to China, Hong Kong and Singapore in November to look at their education systems.

"I am really, really keen to go to Israel. I won't put a date on it yet, but I hope to before too long to go." He said he took his lead from Tony Blair, also a fearful flyer, who recently revealed he has to steel himself before every flight. "I'll just make sure I have a pint or two before I get on the plane, then I'll be fine," he said.

I wondered if he thought people were right to identify a shift in the mood music in British political circles now that the Blair-Brown era was over. and he acknowledged that times had changed.

"Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were good friends of Israel and whatever other praise or criticism that might be directed at both… it is only right and gracious to acknowledge that."

He said there were individual politicians within the coalition who were every bit as committed to the state of Israel and the British Jewish community, but I asked if that stretched right to the top.

"David Cameron is someone I have been fortunate enough to know for nearly 20 years. I know he is instinctively a supporter of Israel and an admirer of the achievements of the British Jewish community… There are a hundred little interactions of David with the community that reinforce that."

So how did he explain David Cameron's comments about Gaza being a prison camp? "One of the things I know David feels is the situation in Gaza is inherently difficult to manage. He's sensitive to the fact that the conditions that prevail there are likely to generate greater radicalism and they have also harmed Israel's capacity to secure a better hearing for its cause.

"Sometimes, if someone provides an objective analysis of a difficult situation in which you find yourself, it is not always easy to hear."

Michael Gove is such a touchstone on issues of security, radicalism and the Middle East that it is sometimes possible to forget that he has a day job running Britain's schools - or rather, under his "free schools" proposals, allowing other people to run them.

I asked if anything should be read into the fact that two of the new schools were Jewish institutions.

"I'm a huge admirer of the Jewish community's contribution to state education. Schools like JFS and Hasmonean are socially comprehensive schools.

"There are children from middle-class Jewish backgrounds and from homes in genuine need. They demonstrate that you can have schools with a faith ethos which also equip people brilliantly for integration into 21st century multi-cultural Britain.

"So when people say faith schools are divisive I say look at these schools, have a look at the people who have been behind JCoSS [Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet], consider what's happening with the groups planning to set up new schools. And I say, what's not to like?"

On the issue of the Supreme Court decision over admissions policy at JFS, Mr Gove called for a period of reflection. "The judgment left me feeling uncomfortable. You could infer from it that Judaism, instead of being seen as a badge of civic identity, was being defined in racial terms.

"Before we proceed in this we need to have a view which reflects the centre of gravity within the Jewish community to which the government can appropriately respond."

Towards the end of our interview the conversation again turned to Israel and an important point of clarification Mr Gove wished to make about relations with its neighbours, and in particular Iran.

"Ultimately, the fundamental threat to Israel's security is not to do with what Israel does but what Israel is. And for the people that run Iran and their proxies, they simply cannot stand the fact that Israel is a western democratic state which is a homeland for the Jewish people.

"Israel's position and defence will be strengthened by doing appropriately by its neighbours and in particular the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

"But no matter how effectively we succeed in developing significantly better relations on the ground, it is still the case that the existential threat to Israel springs from people who are motivated by an ideology that is at the moment implacable."

Mr Gove's fascination with Israel is beyond doubt. His understanding of the situation will surely only be enhanced by visiting the region.

To adopt a popular catchphrase from BBC's Radio 4's The Now Show: "Go on Govey, you know you want to."

Last updated: 2:08pm, September 28 2010