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David Starkey,Newsnight & the responsibilities of historians

In Uncategorized on August 13, 2011 by kmflett

David Starkey, Newsnight & the responsibilities of historians
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 historical profession into disrepute.
Dr Keith Flett,is the convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London

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9 Responses to “David Starkey,Newsnight & the responsibilities of historians”

  1. History is (bar Economics for obvious reasons) the only remaining academic discipline with ‘a right’. The refusal of society by the right that began in the 1970’s has led to the right withdrawing from everything that could involve the study of society or the use of society as a concept. The insistence of right-historians on the rejection of ‘sociological models’ is the expression of this.
    Starkey is the lest of our worries when it comes to rightwing historians; he get’s on the tele a lot but their are ‘tv historians’ far to the right of him.

  2. Did Newsnight court controversy by inviting on a rightwing historian to talk about the riots? Did they sit him with a Jamaican, a Jewish and a Welsh immigrant in order to ‘demonstrate’ that his conservative opinions on multiculturalism, shared by Cameron and Merkel, were uncommon?

  3. Really, what self-satisfied bollocks. We’re far too close to this period to treat it as history, so of course it comes down to opinion. What this basically comes down to is that you don’t like Starkey’s opinions and you think that therefore he shouldn’t express them. Whether history will judge him to have been right or wrong you haven’t the faintest idea, and neither have I. But for God’s sake stop using your pseudo-academic post as cover for promulgating your personal political prejudices.

  4. A narrowly political point: I think its important to note that his qualification was simply to state that whites had become black: in that ‘white culture’ had been polluted by ‘black culture’ (this was then backed up with jim davidson style… imitations of peoples accents). It is important therefore to recognise that the ‘qualification’ was in fact part of the racism and not a departure from it. This is important because its a new way to try and make really vile racism of this kind respectable. I seem to recall books about the new racism in the early 1980s which pointed out the shift to ‘culture’. Its terribly depressing to see this stuff mainstreamed again (perhaps it never went away).

    I have to say, speaking to the more substantive issues you raise, that whenever I hear a historian say ‘speaking as a historian’ on TV I’m aware that what will follow is trivial reactionary tripe. There is though surely a problem with a kind of overly rigerous demarcation between politics and history. In the sense that history can be (and should be) referred to in the course of sensible political argument. And the best history is often motivated by political concerns. I’m quite interested by your points about the left being more interested in the 17th, the right more interested in the 16th. Obviously one should engage with this. But its not in itself a problem. What is a problem is people bullshitting and pretending they have a competance in areas where they have none. When Starkey said ‘speaking as an historian’ what followed was one trivially true proposition (its too early to tell: although you hardly need to be a historian to make this point) and the rest a reactionary bigoted diatribe which certainly had nothing to do with him being an historian.

    If he had said ‘speaking as an historian I think its neccessary to put these riots (and the reaction to them) in historical perspective, would we have the same objection? The right would say that this reflects our bias. But I think its quite easy to disentangle this (there can be legitimate uses of history for right wing argument too).

  5. Fair comments. Yet surely it’s more common to have individuals on the Left – Stephen Fry, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Attenborough, Ben Elton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill, et al – using their celebrity as a platform from which to lecture us on the state of the nation.

    I do think Starkey’s comments were misplaced. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want a limousine liberal like Stephen Fry, or a Bollinger Bolshevik like Redgrave, running the country either.

    Celebrities have a habit of saying silly things about subjects of which they have no concrete knowledge. The real twits in this case are the producers of Newsnight, who put Starkey on, knowing that he’s provocative and good for ratings.

  6. Starkey’s standard technique is to open with a statement so offensive that other participants waste time refuting it rather than putting across their own point of view. It is designed to ensure the focus remains on him. Utterly cynical. Shamefully, the BBC seem to think this makes good TV and so keep inviting him back.

  7. While you are quite right to condemn Starkey this piece makes serious concessions to academic cretinism. The idea that we should trust professional historians on their “periods” is a very dubious one. Highly reputed historians like Robert Conquest and Tony Judt are quite capable of making the most disgraceful errors of fact in relation to their specialist subjects (see recent articles in the LSHG Newsletter.) Your hero Hobsbawm was not only untrustworthy when he wrote about contemporary politics; he also made some very odd judgments in his so-called specialist areas – see his treatment (or rather non-treatment) of the Paris Commune in his nineteenth century trilogy. On the other hand, take a work like Chris Harman’s People’s History of the World. Harman had total contempt for historians who confined themselves to their “periods”. No professional academic historian would have dared write such a book. As for Starkey, he is often described as a “constitutional historian”. But as every schoolboy (and girl) knows, Britain doesn’t have a constitution, so he seems to be an expert in a non-subject. I suspect that anyone who was prepared to put in a few hours work could show that he taking through his arsehole about the Tudors. Of course anyone discussing a historical topic should check their facts and examine their sources – we can’t learn from history if we don’t get it right. But to suggest that we should abase ourselves before “experts” is utterly alien to the spirit of socialist history. [Perhaps we could debate this point in the LSHG Newesletter.]

  8. The “duties of historians” stuff leaves me a bit cold I have to admit. There is a certain pomposity about the academic discipline of history which I don’t think socialists should buy into. Partly linked to modern historiography’s origins in nation building, partly connected to conservative reaction. I think the duties of historians are much like the duties of anyone else engaged in thinking about the world, all the rest is methodology and training. I think care should be taken not to give the impression that the main problem is impugning an academic discipline as opposed to whipping up racist hysteria which may contribute to people being beaten or killed.

  9. This is also important to remember when discussing liberal academics giving their points of views on news channels. Its not the same thing at all. Racism is not simply another point of view.

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