Through Gritted Teeth: A Reply to Michael Gove

You’ve probably seen this old speech from Michael Gove going round the internet this week. I want to talk about it.


My dad is 62 years old. One of seven siblings, the child of Irish immigrants, never lived outside North Yorkshire his whole life. A working class man who never finished secondary school, and has had dozens of jobs, most of which would be considered ‘unskilled labour.’ There were times in his life he was poor, and many times he and his colleagues were frankly abused as workers, though he wouldn’t use that language himself. These have left him with and contributed to a number of health problems, some mild and some severe, including his teeth.


I remember kids in my primary school telling me my dad was scary, and I couldn’t understand why at all. He was just my boring dad. One girl said it was because he “his teeth are all rotten” with such disgust that it struck something in me I couldn’t articulate yet. Maybe the same twinge of anger Gove’s speech has stirred up.


My dad and his siblings didn’t have dentist visits when they were kids. The NHS is a blessing beyond words, but healthcare inequality is still present in Britain, and at the end of the day, dentists and opticians cost money. So he went without. And since long before I was born, he has been missing several teeth and the ones he has are yellowed or blackened. That’s just what my dad looks like, and I don’t remember him looking any other way.


Last week, at a family wake, my oldest uncle was casually telling me about how cutting a thin line of cardboard and placing it over the soles of your shoes makes them last longer, and he reminisced about walking to school like that. It struck me once again how vast the ocean of difference between my life and my dad’s is. How much he gave me that he went without.


But even though I never went hungry or houseless, even though I had presents every Christmas and a week at the seaside every summer, my sister and I were working class kids through and through. Most of the time was good, but stability is a privilege we never quite achieved, so sometimes I went to school with shoes with holes in them. Sometimes I had to wait a few more years to see a dentist.


When Michael Gove talks about ‘the happy south stamping over the dirty toothless face of the northerner,’ he’s not just painting some vague generalisation of poverty. He’s not just using an old stereotype. He’s talking about my dad. My dad is that northerner. Had a few more years of my childhood played out slightly differently, I would be toothless too. I would scare primary school kids, and be the butt of the joke in a tory speech. My dad worked at jobs that treated him like a disposable machine more than a human being so that I wouldn’t be.


But if Michael Gove were to look at my dad, I genuinely don’t think he would even see a person. He would see him as a cruel, dirty, toothless thing. And every time I hear or read that speech I want to scream that my dad has worked harder than Gove ever has a day in his life.


So I would just like to ask that when you see that speech, don’t just think he was imploring some propagandist cartoon of the north that doesn’t really refer to anyone in particular. Think about how the tories made my father toothless, and then mocked and punished him for it.


Because that speech wasn’t a joke to me.