Michael Gove's favourite history book

Michael Gove Image copyright PA

In a speech to the London Academy of Excellence, Education Secretary Michael Gove mentioned one of his favourite history books - George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England. Sean Walsh looks at this classic.

It might seem an eccentric choice - why would Michael Gove pick a poised, sceptical 1935 volume about Irish home rule, suffragism, trade union radicalism and the collapse of Asquith's Liberal government?

Well, most obviously, it's a masterpiece of sorts - like Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, it's full of acerbic biographical portraits, keenly observed ironies and lovely, polished sentences. Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, said it was "wrong on most details, but still the most exciting way to start looking at the nation's history during this period".

And maybe some of its Gove appeal is there in "wrong on most details". It's the sort of book a lot of professional historians feel uncomfortable with, and as the pitched battles of history syllabus reform make clear, they aren't Gove's natural constituency. The Strange Death has big ideas, fine narrative style and biographical curiosity - it's closer to Gove's old trade, journalism.

It could have a lesson for the Conservatives, too. Every now and again, Dangerfield looks for a straight answer - why a rise in union violence, why do suffragettes start breaking windows - but then just shrugs and suggests it's a "bewildering mystery". The British people have their own temper, and that temper was turning away from respectability.

Optimistically, the Conservatives can see themselves as the force that exploited another of these turns - when the prosperous millennial Blairite consensus fell apart, they stepped in. Reading The Strange Death should remind them that seeming-small movements fronted by eccentrics can suddenly swell and overturn governments.

There's, of course, one more reason it's an immortal - that title. And Gove couldn't resist. He said that someone should write about "the strange death of the sink school". It's a great tradition. Many, many things have suffered strange deaths after Dangerfield - Marxism, Labour Scotland, the British motorcycle industry, Tory England, architectural criticism and neo-liberalism (though that's apparently a "strange non-death").

Finally, there's a little party trolling in there too. It's a name perfect for teasing the coalition partners, with its reminder of former glories and abject failure - and that titular death began with a Conservative revolt over constitutional reform…

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