We have an Education Secretary who wants to overwrite history with lies

– Having failed to find a video clip, here’s an audio version of the scene in Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Captain Blackadder explains to Private Baldrick how World War I began. Michael Gove questions its accuracy but it seems correct, according to the history I learned at school.

If anybody doubted it before, now we can be certain: Michael Gove does not want schools to teach facts – he wants your children to learn jingoistic propaganda. By rote.

We can deduce this from his extraordinary attack on one of Britain’s most revered TV comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth.

He said the show (which, as we all know, mixed some of the best verbal humour of the 1980s with searing social commentary and arguably the most moving ending of any TV comedy at all) peddled left-wing “myths” about the First World War, “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”.

According to politics.co.uk, Gove said the popular series had sought to denigrate British patriotism and had been used by “left wing academics” to portray the British war effort as a “shambles” led by an out-of-touch elite (so in that way, one assumes, the war was run much as the entire UK is today).

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage,” the article quoted from his article in the Daily Mail.

He’s wrong, of course. Putting patriotism to the side (it is arguable whether that is a virtue), honour and courage are celebrated by Blackadder; there is no lack of it in the lead characters. Blackadder is perfectly willing to help the war effort by foiling a spy in one episode, for example. Lieutenant George is full to the brim with ideas about honour, courage, fair play and Britishness. Even Baldrick does his bit (although he probably doesn’t understand why). The point of the show is simply that the title character is not willing to lead the men for whom he is responsible into certain death.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Gove continued.

“Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”

In fact, there are academics of all kinds happy to feed these notions because they are based on facts, rather than the ramblings of Mr Gove’s deluded mind.

It is, frankly, terrifying that a man with such ludicrous and – in context – dangerous views may hold the position of Secretary of State for Education.

Gove went on to claim that the war was a “noble cause” and a “just” conflict against the “social Darwinism” of the Germans.

Social Darwinism, for those who don’t know, is the attempt to apply the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to politics; it argues that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see it decrease.

It is strange that Gove should attract attention to this theory, as its strongest supporter in today’s Britain is his cabinet colleague, Iain Duncan Smith. Coalition policies on social security are clearly based on this principle yet Gove has never raised a whisper of protest against them.

Gove went on to say the war “was seen by participants as a noble cause”. Of course it was – they were fed a constant stream of propaganda by their commanders, in order to ensure their co-operation and keep their spirits up. This did not mean soldiers could not use their own eyes and ears to work out what was going on, and repressive behaviour by authorities at the army camp in Etaples led to the mutiny of September 1917, dramatised in the novel (and BBC TV series) The Monocled Mutineer, which attracted considerable criticism at the time of transmission (1986) for alleged left-wing bias.

It is worth noting that questions in Parliament after the novel was published led to the revelation that all records of the Etaples Board of Enquiry, where the mutineers were tried, had been destroyed long before.

And Gove ridiculously claimed that the Battle of the Somme – which the politics.co.uk article claimed has become a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter, was a vital “precursor” to victory. In fact it was nothing of the sort. The Germans gave up because the failure of one offensive after another had left their troops severely disillusioned and their country in danger of revolution – which in fact took place shortly before Armistice Day.

You have much to fear from an administration willing to have a man like Michael Gove running its schools.

He would rather tell your children lies than let them learn the truth; it might give them political ideas that disagree with his own.

His comments are yet more proof that we have a government built on lies.

How are we going to change it?

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26 thoughts on “We have an Education Secretary who wants to overwrite history with lies

  1. Kanjin Tor

    The First World War was caused by stupid – old – white men.

    Let me be clear here… it was called the war to end all wars.. and thus it should have been but alas Politicians are less ready to abandon war then mothers whose son it is that their wars will eat.

    Since WW1 no war has been knowingly and willingly entered into by a Nation unless it has been against another peoples incapable of defending itself successfully. War therefore has become and act of ‘Murder’ committed by an aggressive bullying power against a perceived weaker ‘enemy’.

    That sometimes this percieved ‘weaker people’ successfully defended themselves against the aggressor is neither here nor there… the intent was always to commit murder on people far weaker than yourselves who could not offer any serious resistance and absolutely no reprisals against your own nation. – Kanjin Tor

  2. wrjones2012

    Gove should have had the benefit of my workmate recalling the experiences of his father growing up in Gobowen Shropshire during the First World War.His father recalled the grandiose parades and remembers the local landowner who always it seems gave a speech at the end of these parades;Asking for volunteers to go over to France to be shot!

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  4. Joan Edington

    His ravings sound very similar to a certain group of Germans who, after the 2nd war, attempted to get schools to teach that there were no death camps etc. I believe that under the guise of Berufsverbot many teachers were banned from schools for attempting to teach the truth.

  5. Paul Dawson

    It’s worth reminding ourselves that scepticism about the moral justifiability of the First World War is hardly the recent phenomenon that Michael Gove claims. Surely no-one, not even Gove, can have forgotten all the conscientious objectors, some of whom, far from being mindlessly deluded by left wing propaganda, were intellectuals whose objectivity ought to have been expected to be just about as objective as objective can be. Bertrand Russell, for example.

    I’d like to ask Gove whether the treatment meted out to those people – ostracisation, persecution, prosecution, imprisonment – was justified. Perhaps he’d have gone further. Should they have been shot, in order not to encourage the common people to think and question the War and the sacrificial role their ‘betters’ had planned for them? In order not to discourage unreflecting, unswerving obedience, and the doing of their bit, for King and Country?

    My intention isn’t to tackle Gove on the history, though. There’s really no need, given that the dreadful state of his argumentation does all the work for us, undermining everything else in his scurrilous piece. As ever with Gove and his ilk, rhetoric masquerades as reason.

    There’s an unhealthy portion of ad hominem, for starters. Anyone who disagrees with Gove is, on that basis alone, to be regarded as a facile thinker, whose naïve-yet-malicious lefty agenda renders them incapable of anything other than merely playing at history. Thus Gove’s attitude dovetails neatly with classic Tory paranoia: the professorships of opponents are either undeserving or worthless; or perhaps the academia that dispensed them is irredeemably shit. This from our Education Secretary.

    The ad hominem stuff intermingles with question-beggingness. The question on the table is: ‘Was the First World War morally justifiable?’, but Gove will hear no negative answer, on grounds that the answer simply cannot be other than ‘Yes’. And then, at the end, when he does appear to acknowledge the possibility of principled controversy, he cannot resist adding, condescendingly of course, that those who are sceptical about the moral justifiability of the First World War should bear in mind that Britain’s fighting and winning was a necessary condition of their very freedom to express such doubts! But that is the question, surely! Whether that War was vital for our freedoms, or just an imperial bust-up wherein the aristocracy and establishment used ordinary young men merely as means to their stupid and wicked ends, and not as ends in themselves.

    If we give Gove the benefit of the doubt – in one way – and suppose that he knows his ‘argument’ to be utterly fallacious, what he has to say appears, in all hopelessness and ingloriousness, to be British Bullshit of the first order.

    Indeed, I fear for us all.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I had to look up “ad hominem”, I’m afraid – I’m not as well-read as many who read this blog! To clarify – if I read this correctly – are you saying that the state of being a left-winger automatically discounts such a person from having a valid opinion about the subject?
      Normally I would obscure profane language in a comment but I left yours in because it contrasts so well with the weight of your argument.

  6. sean

    You can’t devolve the first world war into a simple set of statements about why it began, the lead up and causes were very complex. Mistakes were made (the Italian prime minister prevented what would have been the first world war in 1913, unfortunately a new prime minister took over for 1914, and didn’t make the same moves…), and political rivalries reared their head. But in a lot of ways the War was also about Europe lurching from medieval times into the modern era, it was the demise of most of the big medieval empires. Could Europe had made such a drastic change without the World Wars?

    In fact the more I learn about the period, the more I see the war as inevitable. There were literally dozens of crises, and several that avoided a world war by the skin of their teeth up until 1914. The great powers were squaring off against each other, buoyed by nationalism and the height of imperial colonialism, and only the Wars put an end to those things that caused them.

    But IF you were to pin the blame on one thing, it would be nationalism. Slavic nationalism put Austro-Hungry on edge, as it was an existential threat because of their large slavic population. Slavic nationalism was most embodied by Serbia, which really did have plans to incorporate Austro-Hungry’s slavs, and bank rolled what were essentially terrorist organisations such as the black hand, who you may remember as the ones responsible for the assassination of a certain Franz Ferdinand (who ironically was the biggest opponent to war with Serbia). The success of the Balkan league in their war with the Ottoman Empire forced Austro-Hungry to take a harder line in 1914; Germany, feeling encircled (not incorrectly) had to back her only ally in Europe.

    Meanwhile France still had memories of the Franco-Prussian War, Russia was generally paranoid and sided with Serbia, the Ottoman Empire was upset at the recent losses of it’s European territories, Italy wanted some of the territory currently under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Britain wanted to slap Germany down for daring to threaten the Royal Navy’s control of the sea. And underpinning all of that, was the rising levels of Nationalism of each’s respective populations.

    But European nationalism was front and centre of the actions that led to war, and what is nationalism if it isn’t a form of patriotism?

    Though I will note that many of the myths of the First World War are just that, myths. At it’s outbreak the various powers were trying to use 19th Century tactics to fight a 20th Century industrial war, but by about 1916 the tactics had evolved, and if you look at the casualty rates they’re in line with the Second World War, and in fact any modern major engagement with similarly matched adversaries. I.e. claiming the generals were completely incompetent is a little unfair.

    1. Mike Sivier

      You say yourself, “the more I learn about the period, the more I see the war as inevitable”. This corresponds very well with Blackadder’s comment, “The real reason for the whole thing was that it was just too much effort not to have a war,” in my opinion.
      As for claims that the generals were completely incompetent, I’d say that was partly a comic device, and partly a comment on the repetitiveness of trench warfare. You say yourself that it took two years for the tactics to evolve, and it could be argued that there was little effort to change tactics while there were plenty of living bodies to throw into the fray.
      I think the problem with Gove’s argument is that he is trying to turn propaganda into history – whitewash away the faults that did exist.

      1. sean

        I wasn’t criticising Blackadder, I love Blackadded goes forth. I’ve had to copy my dvds to hard drive for fear of wearing them out. Ben Elton is both extremely knowledgeable about the period, but also rather biased to the postwar view. The comic device of incompetent Generals plays into the generally accepted view, but it’s also incorrect.

        It took two years to develop better tactics (in fact tactics were continually evolving, but it was two years before they hit on really effective measures like creeping barrages) because they were fighting a war completely different to any conflict they’d ever experienced, and situations their training had never envisioned. In short I find little evidence to support the idea that the Generals were generally incompetent or showed callous disregard for the lives of those under their command.

        But yeah, as I noted, Patriotism and Nationalism go hand in hand, and one of the major component causes was Nationalism. But can we really be surprised that a Tory is wanting to use propaganda?

        These are the people who voted for Bank bailouts made necessary by the fall out of policies they supported or put in place, then turned around and pinned all the blame for the debt those bailouts caused on Labour. And then they got away with it.

        These are the people who increase the countries debts and crash it’s economy every. single. damn. time. they get into office, and have yet convinced a great swathe of the country that they’re the fiscally responsible ones.

        These are the people who are setting up the conditions for the next financial crisis, and will blame someone else, probably successfully, when it blows up in our, not their, faces.

        There’s a lot of people right now who confidently claim “socialist” healthcare can’t work, because the political right has spent decades destroying the NHS, despite the fact it still out performs private only systems at a fraction of the cost even after that concerted effort.

        Tory stock and trade is propaganda, and they are masters at it. It’s the only thing they really do well, and unfortunately it’s the only thing they really need to do well to get away with literal murder.

      2. Mike Sivier

        I’ve just been reading a little more about the marketization of the NHS and you should be warned that the destruction is continuing as I write this. Top-up insurance will be next, for frequent users who have personal budgets. Also insurance in case you end up in A&E and they demand payment – as seems likely from recent news stories.

  7. jaypot2012

    A 100 years ago, Gove would have been one of those in the trenches and then on the wire, just hanging there with the life taken from him – as he wouldn’t have been important enough to keep over here for anything!
    I read, I read a lot and I know that the generals and suchlike carried on with their lives with barely a change to their way of life.
    Our soldiers were used as cannon fodder and those who did survive came back home to dear old Blighty with missing limbs, serious injuries to faces, ear and eyes and of course, the thousand yard stare which we now know as P.T.S.D.
    Yes, many men were given the white feather and suffered for it, but they knew that the war was wrong!
    In this day and age, if a war like that was to start again here, (I know that isn’t possible but bare with me) – the ones that would be conscientious objectors would be hiding behind their religions as excuses, especially those who state theirs is a peaceful religion!
    I quite like history at school, that is when you did learn more about things from the get go, not now like they only go back a couple of hundred years (if that) – but I do know that Black Adder taught me a lot more about WW1 than anything I could have possibly learned. I liked the way it was done with the costumes, props, etc so that you could actually FEEL what it was like to be in the trenches, I liked how you understood more by it being acted out albeit with humour. I will never, ever forget the feeling I got when they showed everyone going over the top – it was a feeling I will never be able to describe properly, but it’s a feeling that millions felt all over the UK that evening. It was talked about for weeks and still gets talked about now, and it’s always the final scene that makes people tear up or gulp the lump down in their throats. That’s how powerful it was and IS what happened, not what Gove tries to say what happened and tries to change history.
    That man is a fool, and we have him in charge of Education! Like the rest of this un-elected coalition, they don’t know their erse from their elbow and I really do pity the next few generations…

  8. Colin M. Taylor

    I think it was the late Tom Clancy who described War as ‘Armed Robbery writ Large’, whether it was Hitler with his ‘Lebensraum’ or Bush after the Iraqi oil.
    Since Corporate Capitalism has become so dominant, wars have become more numerous and bloodier.
    Another point to consider: Wars are not usually won by the ‘best’ side so much as the side that makes fewer mistakes.

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  10. beastrabban

    Thanks for posting this, Mike. There’s some justification for some of Gove’s comments in that it has been argued that much of the cynicism about the First World War comes from the despair and cynicism created from the Second. However, the First World War did leave large numbers of returning ex-servicemen embittered about the War and the society that caused it. Really, Gove seems to know very little either about the First World War and its causes. More seriously, he wishes to prevent others from teaching a view of the War of which he does not approve. It’s an attack not just on history, but on the quest to search for and teach objective truths not constrained by comforting national myths.

  11. hstorm

    Not completely sure about one or two parts of this. The First World War *was* fought very incompetently (and not just by the British) in the early stages, but it’s unfair to argue that it was like that all the way through. Commanders did learn from their mistakes as the war went on, which is something that Blackadder Goes Forth never acknowledged.

    I also have to dispute the assertions that, “The point of the show is simply that the title character is not willing to lead the men for whom he is responsible into certain death,” and that, “Blackadder is perfectly willing to help the war effort by foiling a spy in one episode, for example.”

    No. The point of the show is that Blackadder *is* terrified for himself, and wants to escape the war. His motives are sympathetic, but not particularly honourable, not least because he doesn’t actually appear to give a damn whether his men survive. And his reasons for trying to expose the German spy are entirely self-serving; to get away from the trenches while investigating, and, if successful, to be permanently relocated to Headquarters and many miles from the front line.

    It is true that, “Lieutenant George is full to the brim with ideas about honour, courage, fair play and Britishness”, but he is also a complete imbecile. This dimwittery is in fact embodied in his naive patriotism, and his inability to distinguish the war from a school sports day. In that light, Gove is sort of correct to argue that the series “denigrate(s) virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage,” in that it portrays them as foolish.

    Having said all that, it is all-too-typical of Gove to imagine that the job of history lessons is to program young people into unquestioning jingoism, and so the overall gist of what he was saying was, indeed, very dangerous. And there has never been any sustainable justification for the war at all – preventing ‘social Darwinism’, even if it genuinely were a significant driving force in German society at the time, was never an aim of fighting the war for the British. Trying to make that claim for the war-effort is just about trying to find any unpleasant aspect of a society and making a big deal out of it retroactively. A bad approach, as it is not just dishonest, it can work both ways; there were any number of bad aspects to British society at the time that German propaganda could point to and claim justified the German Empire’s war effort.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I don’t think we’re a million miles away from each other on Blackadder or George. Blackadder can be terrified for himself and still be capable of fulfilling a worthwhile function, and his indifference about his men tends to be belied by his behaviour in the series (although I may have to watch it again, just to check up on that). He doesn’t want to lead his men into certain death because he’ll be dead. He is perfectly willing to help the war effort by foiling a spy; it just happens that he believes this will also help him get out of harm’s way. A job in headquarters would still involve him helping the war effort – in fact, it might do more good, as he is clearly more intelligent (and more sane) than Melchett.

      Yes, George is an imbecile. He is representative of Englishmen who had these ideas impressed upon them from a very young age, to the point where they could not cope with any alternative worldview. But that doesn’t make honour and courage foolish; it makes the British authorities who used them to entice millions of men onto the battlefield cynical and manipulative. Look at Melchett in the last episode, sending Darling to the front. He knows exactly what he is doing.

      It’s possible also that, as Blackadder Goes Forth never reached the end of WWI, the series could be said to only cover the period in which the war was fought incompetently, and to suggest that commanders’ performance improved after that last massacre. But this is just speculation.

  12. Jon

    It should be noted that at the time of the First World War something like 40% of the soldiers sent to the front couldn’t vote in general elections and so didn’t vote for the government which sent many of them to their deaths without even supplying them with boots or a rifle. What a waster of skin that dreadful little lying troll Gove is.

  13. Joseph Smith

    I’m simply not as well read as many who write here, however, as an ex Bootneck,if I was in a trench with Gove as my senior officer, I’d have slotted him. The mans a meddling fool given a job and position he is neither qualified for or remotely capable of doing. Why is it that each and every new bunch of clowns in government seek to fiddle with education NHS and defence, whilst the sorting of the real problems continually evades their tiny underused brains.

  14. Joseph Smith

    I think the Blackadder programme quite adequately illustrated the activities of the Generals far removed from the front, men, were only lines on maps being slaughtered en-mass whilst the General staff enjoyed a good meal followed by brandy and a good cigar, were most of the staff Tories?

  15. Ian Garrett

    The issue is partly that people (including many of the particpants in this discussion) treat BGF as if it is a historical source. There are several comments to the effect of BGF should be applauded because it shows what it was really like. This is a circular argument. I assume this is what WW1 was like, BGF reflects that, therefore it must be accurate. And similar remarks could be made for OWALW. But these programmes are interpretations of the First World War, and it is entirely correct to say that they should not be treated as if they were documentaries, or as if they were in any way reliable sources – they are caricatures. Funny, well written, moving – but that doesn’t make them accurate, reliable, or the last word that must not be challenged or criticised on WW1

    1. nigel simmons

      Gove is probably referring to the statement that Britain was an Empire and compared Germans as a backwater .We raped and Pillaged 75% of the World but the British Population did not prosper .Similar today the Tories are raping and pillaging the poorer of the British population and enriching the rich .

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