Monday, 15 June 2015

If it's time we called things by their proper names, Can we stop calling David Starkey a Historian?

Okay, let me be clear from the start. If you’re looking at this blog and considering it as an evidential source as to whether David Starkey is of any more use to humanity than a knitted condom – I openly declare that you may wish to untick any ‘balanced’, ‘fair’ and ‘without prejudice’ criteria.

I have long since decided that the man is an ‘uber twat’.

From years of exposure to his vile[1], sexist[2], sometime racist[3] and generally hideous appearances on Newsnight, Question Time and other nauseating news shows, I confess I cannot stand the man and generally disregard any opinion he has to offer, as complete Bantha fodder.

There is however, no point in tapping out a blog to justify such a position. A quick glance at the reaction to his Sunday Times interview[4] yesterday, tells us this view is already shared by an unquantifiably vast number of people[5]. I’d like to be fair to the reader however and point out that there may be others who disagree. Maybe the man is a God in the eyes of millions. I’ve just never encountered anyone who shared that view. I haven’t looked very hard though – and remember, I think he’s as objectionable as a Docken-less nettle meadow, so be sure to make up your own mind.

The thing which makes my blood boil however, is the way that Starkey is rolled out as some sort of Talismanic Historical Deity, who must be respected because he has achieved the honour of Professorship in this most worthy subject. No matter how much the man gets of my nerves for his personal opinions, it is the disrespect and disservice he does to the presentation of History and the name of Historians that makes me want to stuff Magna Carta up his……well, you get the idea.

I am not questioning that Prof. Starkey is a very learned man. He probably knows quite a lot about a whole heap of very interesting things and I daresay mis-understands the point of why it’s worth knowing about them in the first place, for at least half of them. (Note, this is opinion, biased opinion - not fact – he may know very little about anything and it might all be boring to boot.)

What I am trying to offer for consideration is that David Starkey is a truly terrible historian.

For a start, it doesn’t take a degree in history (just for the record, I do have a degree in history but that spoils it a bit) to make an analogy between the rise of the Nazis and the rise of the SNP. As it happens, it’s an offensively amateur analogy at best – I bet he didn’t even look into whether Salmond or Sturgeon had been rejected from art-school, have animal loving tendencies or questionable sexual preferences.

I jest, but, tell you what, let’s turn every government who ever advocated investing in national infrastructure into Nazi war-machine full employment fascists. Let’s turn the ‘Labour Rose’, the ‘Tory…eh…Tree?’, the Pride Movement’s ‘Rainbow Flag’, into Swastikas. Let’s run with the SNP modelling itself on 1930’s right wing continental nationalist movements. Nevermind that it’s nonsense, screw the following 80 years of history, and as to events before - we’ll just have to ignore Woodrow Wilson’s intentions for the Treaty of Versailles regarding the right of National Self Determination.

Nope, everyone who ever thought devolving power closer to the people it affects in any form whatsoever must be likened to Nazis. The Dalai Lama better watch out because if Starkey even gets a whiff that he thinks China has something to do with the plight of the Tibetan people, it’ll be his turn to get Starkey-ed the next time a book needs promoting. (Though at least he has the decency not to expose his knees in public.)

Honestly, David Starkey’s opinion on the rise of the SNP is about as objective as my opinion on the God-like cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. Anyone who has listened to us for even 5 minutes already knows what it is going to be.

It is however in his own self-professed regard from himself, that I feel he gives most offence and disservice to the office of Historian. My knowledge of the events and inter-weavings of this planet’s vast history is small by comparison to many of the great tutors who have inspired my learning but that does not mean that in seminars and tutorials, conversations in common rooms or discussions down the pub - ideas, information, assessment of evidence and controversial theories could not be discussed openly, on many occasions taken apart, and on others given due consideration - because whether a historical theory happens to be likely to be true, or not, has nothing to do with how many letters you have either before or after your name. ‘Top’ Historians frequently disagree with each other on almost everything and they can’t all be right. The point is - it’s in the evidence, stupid.

Personally, I am the type of historian who thinks you cannot definitively prove or disprove anything. I can’t prove or disprove that theory, but I don’t think that particularly takes away from my point of view. For Prof. Starkey however, it would seem all that is required for a theory to be true, is that oxygen molecules flowed to and from his body in an orderly fashion, while he had the good grace to en-noble the world with his gaseous offerings.

In a recent interview on Radio Four[6] concerning the context of the differing texts and signatories to Magna Carta, Starkey’s argument as to why his theory should be respected above that of the other contributor was extraordinary.

To be fair, his fellow guest had previously (in mistaken flattery) mentioned the word ‘Great’ in the context of Starkey being a Historian but his irate and impassioned defence of his theory and the disdain he felt for his opponent could be summed up in the phrase, “I am the historian, as you have pointed out, I AM A GREAT HISTORIAN.”

So let me flippantly return the compliment of yesterday’s column inches to David Starkey, perhaps he might want to dye his moustache a little before he utters those words next time (even if it is for radio) because ‘you will respect my view over yours because I am the authority on it’ sounds just a teeny bit fascist to me.

He doesn’t have the authority to tell anyone what is historical fact or otherwise. No one does and no historian ever should. Historians should explain in complete candour and without expectation of automatic respect, the fullness of their argument, the evidence it is based upon and their analysis of what it means for our understanding of how the world once was. Politicians would do well to do the same for how the world is and could be. Respect will follow.

For me, the skills of the historian should be more prised than ever in the modern world. The expertise to make sense of thousands of pieces of information, assess their validity, pull them together into theory and be prepared to unpick them all when new information comes to light - these should be the lifeblood of education itself. We are flooded with sources on every subject conceivable and every event half imagined. Yet if we do not inspire each new generation to enquire beyond what the thoughts of Kim Kardasian, Katie Hopkins, nay, even the great historian David Starkey himself are, we might as well build our own bonfire of knowledge and turn the internet over to the gossip columns.

The irony is, though it isn’t my area of study, I might even agree with what Starkey has to say on Magna Carta, but he hasn’t given me the understanding of the basis of his argument to be able to make that assessment. (Though in fairness I’ve never felt able to part with cash to read any of his books - was this article supposed to convince me?). If I cared more, I’d look into it and make up my own mind but I’m too worried at present about what patterns in recent history point towards being our future if the current Westminister government continue down the path they are going.

So, as a fellow, though lowly, historian, I’d like to know which sources David Starkey really considered in his decision to compare the rise of the SNP to the rise of the Nazis.

How much time did he spend amongst the people of Scotland during the referendum? Which articles and blogs did he read, which public meetings did he attend to take the pulse of the populace? What did he think of the diversity of backgrounds of the volunteers manning street stalls, week after week? Which policy documents did he pour over, who did he interview, what was his method of analysis of the debates? What does the rise in engagement in grassroots politics before and after the referendum tell us about the political reorganisation of the country? In comparing social attitude surveys across the last three decades with those currently, just what substantive data analysis can he offer to support the view that Nationalism more than Socialism is at the heart of the current SNP surge? Can he produce the actual policy documents, election literature, party political broadcasts or text of ‘Nuremberg style’ speeches which blame ‘the English’ for all Scotland’s woes. I’d like to have it, because after 17 years in the Scottish National Party, I feel like an idiot not to have noticed that I was a member of the next all conquering fascist empire.

Oh, I know, that’s not fair because he’ll never read my blog, so the lack of response says nothing.

But if I had to take a guess at his sources, I’d say that the equally empty analysis of the BBC, Murdoch Empire, Daily Mail etc. were more than background informants - which I can almost forgive the general populace for, but not a ‘Great Historian’. His inability to even cite the name of the party correctly[7], rather sums up the depth of his analysis for me.

If this were an essay, I’d give it a D at most. I’m fully aware that I’m ranting my head off without the attention to proper punctuation or footnoting that even merits a proper pass. But even if it had been written by my five year old daughter with her fingers covered in organic honey, it would still be superior in relevant analysis to the kind of dangerously irresponsible childish nonsense which came out of the mouth of David Starkey in comparing the SNP to Nazis this week.

If I didn’t think he would scar them for life, I’d invite him to come and speak with my kids about how we ‘do history’ in this house. At five and eight they are beginning to understand that you get more of a telling off if you just ‘agree with Mummy’ without being able to explain why, than if you argued the opposite til you were blue in the face. It isn’t that I’m trying to turn them into great historians, it’s just that as people, I want them to understand why they hold the views they do. I don’t get any pleasure in their agreeing with me because I’m the authority – that would be fascist – the pleasure I get, is in seeing them use their brains.

If David Starkey has opinions, historical or otherwise, to offer the world in future, perhaps he would do well to rediscover his. Until then, I wish he would consign himself to his own, unsold, history books. At least then, he’ll be in the company which he truly deserves.

[1] E.g. Views relating to rape: Question Time 06/02/2014
[2] Really, too many to reference but try waiting til he opens his mouth. Views on Female Historians from interview in Radio Times March 2009, or comments about ‘Pretty Girl Historians’ : SkyArts Interview April 2010 should give a flavour without the need to question where his evidence comes from this year in concluding that historically most women are of average intelligence (Daily Telegraph Interview, April 2015)
[3] E.g. Views expressed during commentary on London Riots: Newsnight 13/08/2011 BBC 2 August 2011
[5] Honestly just type Starkey SNP into twitter or google…there’s quite a lot of people who really don’t like him.
[6] Today Program, Radio Four 24/04/2015
[7] Sky News 15/06/2015 “Scottish Nationalist Party”