Friday, 7 October 2011

Debate: David Starkey, Newsnight and the Responsibilities of Historians

David Starkey currently earns £75,000 per hour for his TV shows

From LSHG Newsletter, 43 (Autumn, 2011)

Keith Flett:
David Starkey [1945-] is a Tudor historian who has made the leap from being an academic to one of a small group of ‘TV historians’ who popularise history for a wider audience. He has caused outrage by appearing on a BBC Newsnight programme about the August riots in England and stating that Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was right to argue that Britain was heading for civil unrest. He did qualify this by noting that Powell had been wrong to argue that this would be racially motivated.

Even so, for someone, perhaps particularly a professional historian, to claim on a mainstream news programme that part of Powell’s far right and racist political agenda had turned out to be correct is something entirely worthy of the storm of protest that it has caused. I have had the dubious pleasure of meeting Starkey and there is no doubt that he is, or at least was, a genuine research historian of the Tudor period. He can talk engagingly and interestingly about his subject in a way that one wishes more historians working on their latest monographs could.

Even so the fact remains that historians have their ‘periods’. I am, for example, a nineteenth and twentieth British labour historian — a not over populated branch line of the profession. I have a sound grounding in historical method and research techniques but even so if you find me opining on an historical issue outside of my ‘period’ it would be as well not to take it all that seriously.

Starkey has in recent decades made a name for himself as a right-wing ‘Kings and Queens’ historian of the sixteenth century in England. Left-wing historians tend to be more interested in the next century, the seventeenth, which saw the English Civil War, so there is no effective counter authority to Starkey on the left.

Because historians know their stuff their views are treated with respect. That doesn’t mean however that their views on everything and perhaps particularly current politics are worthy of particular respect. Eric Hobsbawm, the veteran marxist historian, is currently the leading living UK practitioner of the subject and rightly so. That does not mean, for example, that works like his 1979 The Forward March of Labour Halted, which was a political intervention, need to be treated as historical gospel. They are simply political opinion, albeit historically informed.

Starkey seems intent on making a second career as a right-wing controversialist. He spoke on Andrew Neil’s weekly politics programme about the history of riots in London after the student protests. Starkey clearly had a view but equally clearly it was not a view that had been informed by any visits to an historical archive. We get here to the nub of the problem. In the seminars I run at the Institute of Historical Research in central London I make it absolutely clear that while politics is of course not banned the gatherings are historical research sessions. Wider political discussion can occur in the bar afterwards.

If we are to understand history, we can certainly argue about the interpretation of it, but we also need to have a certain level of agreed ‘facts’. The 1832 Reform Act for example was in that year and came before the 1867 Reform Act. Muddling personal opinion with verifiable historical data is poor practice to put it mildly. By appearing with the authority of a historian on Newsnight, talking of politics and saying Enoch Powell was right about something, Starkey raises an extremely dangerous political agenda.

He also brings the the historical profession into disrepute.
Keith Flett

Reply by Ian Birchall:
Keith Flett is quite right to condemn the ill-informed and reactionary views expressed by David Starkey. But I think some of the arguments he uses are misleading and may give hostages to fortune.

Keith complains about Starkey using the “authority of a historian” to put forward his obnoxious views. Actually I think Starkey gets on Newsnight and Question Time because he is a television personality rather than because of his academic research. But does Keith really object to intellectuals departing from their specialisms? Would he complain that Edward Thompson should have stuck to the nineteenth century, and that his views on nuclear disarmament should not have been taken “all that seriously”? Surely we should welcome the appearance of “public intellectuals”; it would be good to have more Bertrand Russells, Sartres and Chomskys, instead of academics burying themselves in their own tiny specialisms.

Starkey’s crime is what he said, not the fact that he commented on a contemporary issue. [I know nothing of Starkey’s work on his specialist “period”; it is quite conceivable that his right-wing standpoint gives him useful insights, just as Engels argued that Balzac’s reactionary views made him a valuable interpreter of early nineteenth-century France.] Keith tells us that “the fact remains that historians have their ‘periods’.” Indeed, but this fact is a necessary evil, like the division of labour in general. We have to specialise because none of us have enough time or enough brain cells to know everything. But “periods” are an arbitrary division; human history is a total process with no natural boundaries.

Keith tells us that he is a “nineteenth and twentieth century British labour historian”. Doubtless he would refuse to pronounce at length about the American Civil War or the Paris Commune. But he must know something about those events, which had a vital impact on the development of the British working-class movement.  Likewise any historian of the early modern period has to confront the argument about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and therefore needs to know quite a bit about the previous medieval “period”.

In general, I think Keith is far too deferential towards academic historians. Unlike Keith, I spent the best years of my life working in higher education, and I can assure him there are all too many professional academics [historians and others] who not only know nothing of the world outside their subject, but precious little about their own specialisms. Some years ago a now long-forgotten historian called JH Hexter wrote an article called “The Historian and his Day” [in Reappraisals in History, 1961] in which he boasted that he knew more about his academic “period” than he did about the world he lived in. I see no reason to show “respect” to such a historian.

The LSHG Newsletter has recently published critiques [written by someone who is not a “professional historian”] of the work of Robert Service and Tony Judt, showing that these esteemed experts were guilty of gross errors in their own special fields. And reality is often a bit messy for the artificial divisions of historians. Service may be thoroughly acquainted with the archives, but he is hardly competent to comment on Trotsky’s cultural views if he thinks André Breton was a painter.

The example of Eric Hobsbawm is a particularly bad one for Keith’s case. Any analysis of Hobsbawm’s work would have great difficulty is drawing a line between “history” and “politics”. [See Gregory Elliott’s aptly named Hobsbawm: History and Politics, Pluto, 2010 and here. In fact it is rather hard to argue that “The Forward March of Labour Halted” is not part of the “period” of the author of Age of Extremes. Of course Hobsbawm’s arguments were open to challenge and required an informed and evidence based response. [For example this written by someone with a degree in chemistry.] But Hobsbawm’s politics were inextricably entwined with his historical work. That was his strength and his weakness. His strength because his work relates to real questions and not mere antiquarianism; his weakness because his Stalinist and later reformist views distorted his judgments.

And what, I wonder, does Keith make of the work of Chris Harman? Harman’s magnificent A People's History of the World could only have been written by someone with a complete contempt for the constraints of “periods”. I doubt if a professional historian would have dared to write it. [Harman’s degree was in sociology.] Of course Harman drew on the work of specialists, and doubtless specialists can identify detailed errors in his work. But it is an invaluable contribution. Perhaps it should be compulsory reading for academic historians before they select their “periods”.

I hope then that our concern to condemn Starkey will not lead us to abandon important principles about how we regard history; in particular I think socialist historians should be very wary of showing excessive deference towards professional academics.

Clemenceau said that war was too serious to be left to the generals. Perhaps history is too serious to be left to the historians.
Ian Birchall


  1. I am afraid that Ian Birchall's memory of Hexter's essay, "The Historian and his Day", which originally appeared in 1954, has failed him. Hexter's point was that his understanding of the educational aims of Christian Humanists in the early modern period helped him to understand the objectives of progressive educators in his own time (Reappraisals, Pp.9-10): he moved from what he understood best to what he knew less about. In the case of his students, they understood progressive educators better than they did Christian Humanists. For academic historians, Hexter's point was and is valid. No early modern historian can have forgotten Hexter. Ian Birchall evidently has not even if he misrepresents Hexter's argument.

  2. I'm on Ian's side in this dispute, even if (for purposes of polemic) he exaggerated Hexter's stance. Historians proceed from a world view whether or not they admit it. When I was studying history at Cambridge - quite a shock for me as I'd immersed myself in the Middle Ages at school and was suddenly having to understand the implications of the 1832 Reform Act - I used to say that every term students should have to write a brief history of the world, so that their unconscious assumptions about human life could be exposed and fine-tuned. This surely is the power of Marxism, a counterweight to those who think mastering some particular specialty - economics, history, politics - gives them the authority to lead others. "Professionalism" is a curse! On the other hand, I'm not averse to people who recoil from the media's construction of modern life and decide to live in fantasy worlds culled from past periods. Sometimes these holidays from current affairs (eg researching Babeuf?) can provide ammunition against contemporary sterility which is truly explosive and liberating. I think everyone has year-spans that give them a buzz and it's a good thing these are different in different people, it adds to the richness and complexity of our ineractions. The idea that "we all must study" the same period of history (or "keep up with the present", i.e. someone else's history) fills me with dread. It was a shock to me when I realised that I knew more about the period 1966-1976 than I did about 1996-2006; but what's REALLY happening in an epoch can take a long time to leak out. Delving into "the past" is actually our only way of understanding the present and anticipating the future. That's why it's called historical materialism! When Dave Black wrote his book on this history of LSD he eked out facts that altered one's ideas of drugs and capitalism more profoundly than someone writing a "news" story about drugs. If we just spend our time tabulating the rascally escapades of the ruling idiots ("current affairs") history gets sordid and boring: I indexed a history of Communism in the Yemen by a diplomat and by the end I didn't want to know any more about the politicians' efforts to secure loans from the USSR. Flett's view of history as an objective science omits class, history's real motor. Ben Watson