Michael Gove has blamed a “high intensity” live TV interview for claiming “people in this country have had enough of experts” ahead of the EU referendum - despite making similar remarks in less hostile circumstances days later.
The Tory MP and ex-Cabinet minister was speaking to Newsnight as Nobel prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse told the programme Gove’s attack risked undermining science as experts “are being derided and pushed back”.
Three weeks before the vote, Gove was interviewed by Sky News’s Faisal Islam as part of a series of high-profile interviews with key Leave and Remain figures.
The Vote Leave chairman said “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a striking phrase amid a growing distrust of established institutions that has been echoed in similar terms by Donald Trump.
And he later appeared to double down on the comments on the eve on the vote, comparing experts to the Nazis who orchestrated a smear campaign against Albert Einstein in the 1930s when interviewed by LBC - a comment condemned by ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband.
When questioned about economic experts warning about the fall-out of Brexit, Gove told LBC:
“We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish.”
On Newsnight, Gove was more reflective - but blamed Islam for not giving him time to clarify that he was referring to “organisations with acronyms who had got things wrong in the past”, and in particular the International Monetary Fund that had warned on the dangers of Brexit.
He explained he was unable to express himself more clearly because it was “a high profile, high intensity, high tension, high nervousness, encounter”.
Gove insisted he did not regret using the word “expert”, but that it was “occasionally irritating” to be seen to be advocating a “blanket rejection of facts, evidence, rigour”. He said:
“One of the things that is occasionally irritating is that people assume that what I was saying was a blanket rejection of facts, evidence, rigour - when in fact what I was trying to do was to say look let’s simply not take arguments at face value, just because someone works for a prestigious organisation.”
Newsnight Editor Ian Katz pushed him on why he did not clarify his comments in the following days, and Gove said it “didn’t come up that often”.
He conceded that some people may have felt encouraged by his remarks to question expertise. He said:
“It may be that there are some people out there who think that that I’m giving them licence to operate in that way. Who’s to say?
“I would hope that people looking at my career would say whatever that phrase may have encouraged or licensed, actually the man uttering it was someone who believed in more knowledge and more critical thinking - not less.”