I never expected to be writing the following, since Michael Gove is, to me, one of the few heroic figures in modern politics. But he did write a very strange column in the Times last week, inciting the government to ‘Put VAT on school fees and soak the rich’. He seems to be outraged that what he calls ‘the education of the children of plutocrats and oligarchs’ is a charitable activity. Private schools get rate rebates, VAT exemptions and free uniforms, weapons etc for their cadet forces, he says. This is ‘egregious state support’. He also mocks the many bursaries provided by public schools, on the grounds that these have ‘left behind’ all those who do not receive them.
That last argument, of course, undermines almost every charity, since few can benefit all who might be eligible. As for Mr Gove’s outburst against government subsidised cadet uniforms, would he go back to the days when army officers had to buy their commissions? The government subsidises cadet forces because it wants suitable recruits. If one can judge by the large memorials to the dead of two world wars to be found in all public schools, it has found them useful for this purpose.
But at the heart of Michael Gove’s argument is a statist, unconservative view of society. Charity is much older than any of the taxes about which he writes. The English law recognises education and religion as charitable activities. They are public goods. They do not cease to be so whenever a recipient is well off. If churches, being charitable, have tax advantages, it would be unjust that, say, St Peter’s, Eaton Square, should not receive them because its congregation is rich. The advantages bestowed are for all and so those who enjoy them need not be means-tested. The statist world-view looks at independent institutions and says ‘Why are they escaping tax?’ The conservative world-view says: ‘Independent institutions are excellent vehicles for social good: how can the government justify adding to their burdens?’
I realise that ‘the big society’ is now out of fashion and that the Old Etonian David Cameron was beastly to Mr Gove, but undermining the whole edifice upon which charity is based is too high a price for private revenge. Perhaps Mr Gove hopes Theresa May will be attracted by his argument and invite him back into the cabinet. She should have him there, but on his merits, not because he is pretending to have a chip on his shoulder.
This is an extract from Charles Moore's Notes, which appears in this week's Spectator magazine