The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is the Tony Benn of the current cabinet. Like Benn, he began his career at the BBC before leaving journalism for politics; he is also unfailingly polite at all times, he is ideological while being admirably curious of those with conflicting ideological convictions, and he is also always provocatively interesting and sometimes almost wilfully silly.
Gove’s silliness reached a new peak in his comments on the First World War in which he attacked left-wing historians for failing to blame Germany for causing the conflagration. Gove is an avid and promiscuous reader. He knows as well as anyone – and virtually everyone knows – that the origins of the war are a source of endless debate. In the 1960s, it was a German historian, Fritz Fischer, who caused a sensation (and another mountain of revisionist accounts) by ascribing culpability to Germany. Some British historians, from right and left, have differed with Fischer. Some have agreed. There will never be resolution, which is why the debate is eternally compelling. Like a detective story with a vividly ambiguous ending, the debate about the origins of war shows why history can be so accessibly interesting a subject.
Benn was a hugely significant figure. Gove might become one. But when he writes polemical journalism in an area over which he holds responsibility in power, he harms himself far more than the historians he vilifies. A study of British political history shows that the challenge for the few national politicians who dare to be interesting is sensing when to avoid being too silly.