'History is an Argument': Defending David Starkey
As well as being a first-class public historian, a master of the Tudor archive and a member of History Today’s advisory board, David Starkey is a practiced provocateur. He certainly provoked a reaction when in August he appeared on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight to discuss the causes of the English riots.
‘The whites have become black,’ claimed Starkey, clumsily, before more reasonably putting the blame on the ‘destructive, nihilistic gangsta culture’ whose origins may be traced to certain sections of black communities in the US and Jamaica but whose adherents now cross all lines of colour, creed and class, as Starkey later acknowledged. It is never a good idea to think aloud on issues that touch on race and nor is it wise to summon up the spectre of Enoch Powell in a public debate except to condemn him unequivocally.
Yet Starkey is no racist (allegations of misogyny, following a number of disparaging comments about female historians, have greater purchase though excite less interest). Last year I attended a public lecture given by Starkey at Queen Mary, University of London. The audience, a multicultural melange of school students, undergraduates and fellow academics packed into a large theatre, was transfixed as Starkey talked brilliantly and provocatively (with, typically, a few barbs aimed at the Scots and the French) on the young Henry VIII. Despite the fact that he was due to attend a friend’s 50th birthday party (he lectured in bow tie and tuxedo), Starkey spent far longer than he needed to chatting with the younger members of the audience at the reception afterwards. Those students, whose make up was typical of inner city London, appeared to relish the experience. He took no fee for his efforts.
One valuable lesson that those young people will hopefully have learned from Starkey is that history is an argument, often very forceful and divisive. But that is how the pursuit of history advances and why it is also such a civilising activity. It teaches us to cast a cold eye on evidence, to engage seriously with counter-arguments and to deal with unpalatable truths. Studying history helps one develop a thick skin. In that, it counters a worrying trend in modern society: the desire, even the need, to be offended, as if to prove to others that one lives on a higher plane, that one’s sensibilities are more refined.
Recall, for example, the opprobrium cast on another thick-skinned public historian, the classicist Mary Beard, who dared to suggest that the events of September 11th, 2001 may have been linked to US foreign policy. I think she was wrong, as others think Starkey was wrong, but robust argument is the lifeblood of a free society and it should be encouraged.
Watch: David Starkey on Newsnight.
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