Overflowing with respect for even the most cantankerous opponent, and oozing reasonableness from every pore, Michael Gove arrived at the despatch box yesterday to answer an emergency question on Thursday’s teacher’s strike. When he speaks, Mr Gove does so in organised, manicured and precisely stressed phrases, as if talking to very small children (which of course he largely is). He sounded like a fashionable actor trying to do responsible for the story-time slot on CBeebies.

It thus came as some surprise to discover, as the questioning continued, that Mr Gove had himself once been, in the words of Labour member Bill Sefton, a “staunch trade unionist” and had gone on strike. A picture has surfaced of young Gove on the picket line, the future Secretary of State being instantly recognisable as the only one whose placard contains semi-colons.  “I lost my job as a result of taking industrial action”, Mr Gove solemnly informed the House, using this observation to draw the deeper moral that going on strike never solves anything. If there was a shallower moral for teachers to draw that going on strike gets you fired,  Mr Gove was too refined to say so. One would no more expect such Tebbitry from him than you would dockyard language from the Queen at an investiture.

At the time of his ill-fated action, Mr Gove was a journalist on the Aberdeen Press and Journal, and I am sure that publication was immeasurably the poorer for appearing that week without its practical woodworking column.  There is a passage in Stephen Fry’s novel Hippopotamus when its hero, a poet, laments the fact that if all the poets in the country went on strike (as opposed to all the sewage workers) no one would care, or even notice. The same could perhaps be said of all the journalists in Aberdeen. These days, in any case, a little army of bloggers and tweeters would rush in to fill the anxious void.

The loss of a great many teachers on Thursday, by contrast, might be held to be damaging to the national fibre which is why Mr Gove’s statement, in between regretting the action in absolute – one might almost say ablative absolute – terms, laid great emphasis on what could be done by schools to stay open despite everything.  Mr Gove’s department, we learned, is compiling figures on how this effort is going. Given that department’s record for organising information, this is not necessarily a source of reassurance. Doubtless we shall soon be told that of the country’s seventeen and a half million schools and academies, nearly twenty-five million expect to be able to muddle through.

Muddling through will involve volunteer effort from parents, something that the Secretary of State has been anxious to try to whip up. In this he received enthusiastic support from Tracey Crouch, a Tory from Kent, who demanded to know what she “and other colleagues who have a CRB certificate” could do to help. Ms Crouch, who is a qualified football coach, could doubtless be found some PE to take somewhere. Listening to her offer, however, one is tempted to conclude that truly we are two nations after all, divided between those authorised by the police to remain in the vicinity of children and those for whom the jury is out. Ms Crouch’s fellow MPs who do not have the requisite documentation from the fuzz will I expect be allowed to hang around the school gates, fondling their bags of sweets.

It is tempting to regard the great schools relief effort as an example of the Big Society where the oppressive instruments of the state – in this instance the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – are overthrown by the brute power of cheery amateurism. Personally, I think the parallels are more historic. Think back to the general strike in 1926, when men in fedoras got to drive  buses and trains for a day or so before the TUC, broken by the unstoppable practicality of the middle-classes, called the whole thing off. That this was also the fulfillment of a boyhood dream for many was a happy by-product of an otherwise dark week in our history.

Of course, not many boys say that when they grow up they want to be a classroom assistant, so the analogy might break down at this point. The Speaker though both dresses for the part of a minor prep school master and, say his enemies, behaves increasingly as if that is what he is.  Mr Bercow is also no fan of Mr Gove, yet on this occasion even he could find nothing to fault in the Secretary of State’s immaculately polite presentation.

There was, however, one brief moment of danger. Discussing what he had or had not said to the teaching unions while still in opposition, Mr Gove appeared to come close to accusing Andy Burnham, his opposite number, of misleading the House – an offence high upon the roster of parliamentary naughtiness.  Mr Bercow must have blinked, or nodded off, for he allowed the Secretary of State time to recover. Mr Gove re-stated the point in a manner that implied he would be less astonished to find Simon Cowell splashing about in his morning sugar puffs than Mr Burnham misleading the House. We all knew what he meant anyway, but even Bercow was quelled by his charm.

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