Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Hawk on Cameron's Shoulder - Jasper Gerard interviews Michael Gove for today's Observer

Journalist and author Michael Gove's hardline views on Islamic terrorism ignited fierce debate. Now he has unlikely allies, he tells Jasper Gerard

Sunday January 14, 2007 The Observer

Suddenly he touches my knee, leans forward and whispers: 'Look!' Michael Gove quivers, as if he has just seen through the mist one of the seven wonders of the world: he has sighted Baroness Thatcher gliding towards us.
But lately it has been Labour grandees beating a path to the Conservative frontbencher, following publication of his uncompromising book on Islamic terror, Celsius 7/7. Among them was Gordon Brown, who stopped to congratulate this key David Cameron adviser on his hawkish work - which will alarm Labour MPs hoping for a gentler foreign policy from Prime Minister Brown.
Gove's was the book that cabinet ministers read during Christmas. Even the Home Office, he discloses, has 'invited me in for a little chat' after he attacked ministers for funding Islamicist groups, which according to Gove merely legitimises terrorism. 'For a long time the Home Office has thought it has to work with these organisations, but I hope it has thought again as a result of this book.'
Yet this rigorous intellectual - adopted and raised modestly in Scotland, prior to a stellar journalistic career - confesses the book has gone down less well with Conservative colleagues desperate to appear more 'huggable', including, he hints, Cameron.
Gove's contention is that a small but determined brigade of Muslims has developed 'transnational' loyalties superseding any attachment to Britain. Gove, tipped for high office in a Tory administration, argues that some have been breathtakingly frank; it is just that the government turned a deaf ear.
Understandably the extremist dream of ensnaring everywhere from Catford to California in a caliphate makes this politest of men bristle in his Savile Row suit; but equally striking is Gove's determination to impose a Western way of life on the Middle East. Isn't that hypocritical? 'I am not a relativist,' Gove, a Radio 4 Moral Maze regular, answers firmly. 'I believe multi-party democracy is a superior way to live.' Some Muslims might argue that of Sharia law. 'But then we are lost in a moral desert. We must be clear about what is worth defending.'
He points out that democracies are far less likely to go to war than totalitarian countries, which is what he thinks many Islamic states amount to. But how can we be sure our civilisation is the ideal? Even Western philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard have argued that civic society of the type Gove extols is merely a staging post to a higher, religious life. Is it right to 'force people to be free'?
'I accept, given some states' history, we cannot give them the American Declaration of Independence and a British parliament and expect them to have it running by Tuesday,' he concedes. 'Nevertheless, I say "these values are better". Rather than the Foreign Office idea of siding with the local sheikh, I am more in the tradition of Palmerston, who supported smaller countries breaking away from feudal empires. My views are closer to some on the left than to, say, Henry Kissinger.' Such are the curious bedfellows of the war on terror.
So his book hasn't gone down too well on the Tory benches? 'Some colleagues disagree, some more than others,' he smiles. 'David Cameron did say "I'm not a neo-con", whereas,' he pauses, 'I am.' He rattles off policies on which he and Cameron agree, but he has the grace to admit the Tory leader also criticised 'the Bush White House in terms of patience and humility'.
Will Gove endorse his leader's criticism? Gove is a sharp debater - he could convince you global warming is great or Coldplay cool - but for once he looks anxious. To buy time, he puts down his teacup and stoops to tie his lace. Eventually he says: 'I have a slightly warmer view of Tony Blair than other Conservatives. The vehemence of the criticism of Blair is so strong and misguided I thought I should defend him - not that it will do him any good.' When Gove sighs 'There are people who want Bush to fail, Iraq to fail,' you wonder if he means the Tory party, perhaps the Tory leader.
Some find Gove too strident; as housing spokesman he has had Tories hopping in their green wellies by suggesting that the market should be allowed to let rip and that houses should be built on farms. He is called, glibly, a 'moderniser'; but while he is liberal on issues such as gay rights, he is largely engaged in finding clever new ways to defend traditional values.
While most in the British establishment emphasise the importance of the Middle East road map, Gove makes only the most perfunctory admission that the failure to find a solution contributes to terrorism. Don't you, I ask, accept that, while Osama bin Laden would not be bought off with an Israel-Palestine peace accord, the situation might draw anger from many Arabs tempted towards violence?
'I see the logic,' he says, which is Gove-speak for 'no'; charm is his weapon, and his deadliest tactic is to sound sympathetic while tearing your argument to shreds. 'When Islamicists talk about occupation they are not referring to the West Bank or Gaza - they object to Israel per se, and any American soldiers on any Arab lands.' A nice point, but this is not the view of many Arabs. 'Indeed, but Islamicists will say, "The West is weakening: one more heave".'
If Islamism is engaged in a to-the-death struggle with the West, how does Gove answer bin Laden's point that al-Qaeda isn't giving a terribly hard time to Sweden? 'France was vocal in its opposition [to the Iraq war], but has uncovered a lot of terrorist plots. So has Spain after withdrawing from Iraq.'
Critics accuse Gove of finding facts to fit his preoccupations. As well as being massively pro-Israel, he is stridently opposed to the Good Friday agreement, which he claims Islamists have taken as Western weakness. Can he really claim that in the caves of Tora Bora they sagely study how Blair caved in on the Royal Ulster Constabulary? 'I think,' he says 'you underestimate their sophistication.'
Does he exaggerate the threat from Islamic forces? Perhaps, but that might be better than underestimating it. His heroine had a phrase for it: the resolute approach.

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