In Conversation with David Starkey

Historians in the News

The historian with an opinion on everything explains to Iain Dale why he was joking when he called Scotland a feeble little nation, his theory on the Californisation of the world and how Aneurin Bevan was deranged.

ID: How did you first get into history?
DS: Almost accidentally. It was by no means the subject I was most interested in. Most people thought I was going to be a scientist. My best subjects were physics and chemistry. The reason I made the choice I did is simple: I am not a natural mathematician. Numbers only mean something to me when they have a pound or dollar sign before them, which is when I become quite good with them. From a very early age I had very high verbal skills. The only thing I was ever any good at at school outside of the curriculum was acting and in particular, our public speaking competition - in those days called elocution. By the time I was 15 I was a competent performer in what was then called 'the stump speech'. Once you'd done that, you were never ever frightened of public speaking.

Perhaps your next TV thing should be the 'X-Factor' of public speaking?
It would be interesting wouldn't it! And most people are so bad at it, including those who are supposed to be good at it. Most university lecturers and teachers are awful.

What do you think of politicians as public speakers?
Very few are any good at all. I can't really think of any current ones who are. I was never impressed with Blair. Cameron is all right.

Blair was quite a good platform speaker because he could act.
Yes, but if you are to be a really impressive public speaker, there's got to be content, and of course there never was. There was blather of common places. And also, I don't think with really good public speaking you should be too keen to please. Blair has a labrador quality.

Isn't that endemic in politics though?
It's endemic in current politics. I don't think Churchill fell over himself in his desire to please. I suppose what has really happened is that the idea of the major political speech as sustained exposition - explanation, policy - that has largely vanished, because most of them don't have any policies to explain. By no means are all the 'great' 19th century speeches really great, but some of them are.

Wasn't that because they had no other way of explaining things, whereas nowadays there are?
But how often are they used? How often is there any real exposition of policy at all? What's astonishing is that we have a Prime Minister who is supposed to be an intellectual - I've never seen any evidence of this, but we are told all the time that Brown was a brilliant student and briefly held a university position. I've never heard one word from him that suggests connected thought. If you look at the alleged 'great rescue' of the economy there are two ways you can explain it. One is that he was grounded in serious understanding of Keynesianism and all the rest of it, and the other is that Brown is doing what he's always done best which is throw money at things. And nothing he has said has persuaded me that it was anything other than the latter.

Is there a figure in Tudor history you would liken Gordon Brown to?
Gordon Brown actually reminds me more of a figure of modern literature. There is a real feeling of Kenneth Widermerpool about him from Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. Widmerpool is the dreadful, plodding figure, who's only good sport at school is cross-country running. While all his brilliant, charming contemporaries bugger it up, Widmerpool rises! It seems to me that with Brown there is a complete sense of humour and charm bypass. There is that relentless bludgeoning quality with his alleged 'brilliant performances' as chancellor, the machine-gun fire of statistics that were always at least ten degrees from the point. But no charm, no wit.

When did you first become entranced with the Tudor period?
Very early. When I was at Cambridge there were two really dominant figures in the history faculty: Jack Plum and Geoffrey Elton. Plum had already handpicked Simon Schama at that point, and so I suppose I gravitated to Elton. And in many ways I discovered myself by doing history seriously in my third year, when Geoffrey supervised my special subject class and was a wonderful teacher.

Some people have always wondered why you tend to stick with the Tudors and don't do any 20th century history. Does contemporary history not appeal to you?
I am mildly into it. The real problem is that there are loads of people who are very widely learnt - from Anthony Beevor to Andrew Roberts - in 20th century history. Why start from scratch? Whereas what I can do, is use some of the insights and patterns of knowledge that you have from the Tudor period to illuminate certain aspects of 20th century history. I have after all, written quite widely on the twentieth century monarchy, where I think my understanding of the earlier period can give me different sorts of insights that are useful. The real test of how good you are as a historian is how much easier you find it to remember the privy council members of the 1540s than the current cabinet! I wouldn't want to present myself at all as a specialist in modern history. There are good reasons to stick with the Tudor period. It's a kind of Goldilocks period, in which you've got just enough information, but not too much.

When you started writing books about the period and doing television, did you set out to popularise it, because that's what you've achieved. People have settled on that period as one of the most interesting in British history, I think in large part because of what you've done.
Well that's very nice of you to say so. Obviously if you're doing something on television, you expect to be getting an audience of a couplemillion plus and when we started we very comfortably exceeded that. I've been looking at my own dissertation, which I wrote in 1972-73. And what struck me about it was that I was quite pleased with it - he said smugly!

Did you feel as if you were reading something by someone else?
I am very masculine in my approach to writing. Writers fall into either two groups: you're either a mother or a father. If you're a mother you remember every word, you care passionately about them. But if you're a father, once it's done it's done. There was a wonderful remark by Elizabeth Russell - that's Conrad Russell the last Earl Russell's wife - that"old Conrad views the responsibilities of fatherhood as ending at the moment of conception". That is pretty much my view of writing - once it's done, it's done. Most of it was written in six weeks. That's how I write most things - like a railway train. Once I get going...

Do you do all the research and then start writing?
No, I find huge holes. It's why I think it's so important with kids at any stage - but particularly at university and particularly research students - to get them writing. It's only once you've started to connect the material that you realise what you need to know. And you invariably discover huge gaps and things that you thought you knew you don't know, and I am very sceptical of these people who claim before they write a book to have structured every paragraph.

You've made the period very popular in one sense, but what about shows like the Tudors, that in some senses...
Vulgarise it! The nice line of division between popularisation and vulgarisation!

But there is a positive to programmes like that isn't there, because it means if people are fascinated by them - even if they're historically inaccurate - they think, oh, actually I'd quite like to find out a bit more about that.
They write to David Starkey and say, is it really true that Anne Boleyn slept with her father?! And you reply no, but if you are interested in finding out whom she did sleep with, then see David Starkey's Six Wives of Henry VIII, pages so-and-so to so-and-so!

So they clearly didn't employ you as an adviser!
No no! It's the higher tosh. But the real question is, why does it work? And what is the foundation of this interest? I was actually asked this question by a schoolteacher yesterday and I said I thought there were two reasons, and the first - The Tudors simply is this - it is a most glorious and wonderful soap opera. It makes the House of Windsor look like a dolls house tea party, it really does. And so these huge personalities, you know, the whole future of countries turn on what one man feels like when he gets out of bed in the morning - just a wonderful, wonderful personalisation of politics.

Compared to how you learnt your history, do you think today's school age kids and students are being short-changed in how history is taught today?
Yes I do. The core of history is narrative and biography. And the way history has been presented in the curriculum for the last 25 years is very different. The importance of knowledge has been downgraded. Instead the argument has been that it's all about skills. Supposedly, what you are trying to do with children is inculcate them with the analytical skills of the historian. Now this seems to me to be the most goddamn awful way to approach any subject, and also the most dangerous, and one, of course, that panders to all sorts of easy assumptions - 'oh we've got the internet, we don't need knowledge anymore because it's so easy to look things up'. Oh no it isn't. In order to think, you actually need the information in your mind. It's going back to what we were saying about the construction of an argument on paper - it's only once you've got all those pieces together, and see the holes I was describing.

The skills basis misunderstands what education should be about. I am really old fashioned and think that education is about the introduction of the young to the best of what is known. In other words it's a cumulative process, and that's not in the least conservative or sterile. If I were made God of the curriculum, I would want people to do a really broad course in the history of the last two thousand years in general, and the last thousand years of British history in particular.

They should have a sense of a map of time - know where you place yourself, know the broad intellectual, economic, political movements. You should realise that to assume democracy and freedom are synonyms is the mistake of a tyro. You should know that there were free societies that weren't remotely democratic, and many democratic societies that were certainly not free. To do that you need broad patterns of both comparisons in time and comparisons in places.

Do you think we're now seeing the results of that type of education, where very few politicians seem to have any sort of historical knowledge or perspective at all?
That's absolutely right and it also goes along with a particular type of society - if you like the Californisation of the world. One of my American friends said many, many years ago - decades ago - that what you've got to understand in California is that with that blue sky and eternal sunshine and lonely beaches, the concept of the past can't exist. We're all Californians now! And I think a very interesting example was someone like Princess Diana - from the grandest, upper-crust English background - and yet her references, modes of behaviour, appearance and dress suggested she was born in Orange County. Didn't she think that Duran Duran were more or less the best thing since sliced bread?

And she was right! Couldn't you actually come up with a character from any age of whom you could say that about?
Well, the airhead isn't a new phenomenon. But what was still particularly interesting was what sort of fecundity she represented. And most of the young women on television it seems to me seem to belong in this kind of Orange County 'never never land'.

Talking of women in history, you've come in for some flak recently for your comments about the so-called feminisation of history.
I can't imagine why. It seemed to me such a sensible, gentle comment. If you have a large number of women historians, writing for a readership where a very large percentage are women, you will get a certain kind of editing and presentation of history. It was no more than that.

Couldn't you make the counter argument that men writing about history put a particular slant to it also?
Of course you can. That's precisely what I was saying: that certain sorts of things are put into the foreground like personal relationships, the role of the wives and so on - and I have after all written the defi nitive book on Henry and his wives - but certain other things are put into the background, like war and religion.

But aren't you impugning the ability of female academics and historians?
I wasn't talking about academics at all really. What 99 per cent of academics do doesn't make any difference outside of their own university, let alone have any impact in the wider world...
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