David Starkey, a well-known historian on Britain’s constitutional and royal history, is no doubt skilled in stirring up a little drama once in a while as he is in his profession. His love for such things can be surmised in his own words about the Tudors, which holds an equal place of love within his heart, as ‘it is a most glorious and wonderful soap opera’ and ‘a wonderful, wonderful personalisation of politics’.
It is therefore unfortunate that his vices have finally got the better of him after the recent comments he made on slavery, forcing him to resign from his honorary fellowship at Fitzwilliam College of the University of Cambridge. When looking at what Starkey exactly said, there is no excusing his comments. These words, said on Darren Grimes’s show Reasoned (with Grimes still trying to dodge bullets himself metaphorically), were the following:
‘Slavery was not genocide otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain would there? An awful lot of them survived.’
Starkey’s comments were at the very least unwise. His bluntness is admirable – but on this occasion his unorthodoxy went too far to the extent that it lost all rationale and effectiveness as a method of argument. Because of this, he is now suffering the consequences.
The amount of coverage that forced Starkey’s resignation is not through his actions alone however. Some of the pressure placed on Starkey has been largly exacerbated by whatever direction the wind wishes to blow, a miracle largely dictated by the media themselves. Because of Starkey’s infamous profile, they have gladly directed the foul odour released by him towards his own nostrils. One could say this is a just cause. However, is it so when fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal has not only avoided being reprimanded by her university but instead defended by it for her own racially sensitive comments?
This is sadly nothing new within the academic world, at least in the field of history. The recent situation with Starkey bears many similarities to A. J. P. Taylor’s own ostracisation by Oriel College of Oxford University in 1964, after he wrote the controversial The Origins of the Second World War. This, along with Taylor’s own brash views on speed limits and Germans, would make him a parody to many (the ‘historian’ character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one such example).
Yet is this acceptable? Whilst the views of historians such as Starkey and Taylor may be controversial or even repugnant, they are views to consider nevertheless. Purging them would go against the very principle Cambridge used in its defence of Gopal’s controversial tweet. At least Oxford’s Lousie Richardson has considered the value of history through how it is conveyed, even if it may be controversial in method. As Tim Stanley noted in a article about the feud between Taylor and his fellow Oxford collegue Hugh Trevor-Roper (which itself was used as comparison for another scandal Starkey was involved in), the greatest historians often have a tendency to stray from the professionalism their vocation requires:
‘Of course there are historians who allow their politics to prejudice their thinking and corrupt their research – to the point where their opinion is no longer valid. But it is a misnomer to suggest that historians should avoid subject areas beyond their immediate training, including sensitive areas like politics and race.’
The gift that polemical historians keep on giving is their own unique questions that may have been unconsidered in the past. Taylor challenged the conventional view of what started World War II with great effect and brought new theories to light, despite some arguing that it created further divisions within academia. Starkey, as much as he is a skilled historian, has not been as successful when it comes to the topic of ‘blackness’ – something which Stanley correctly criticises him for due to Starkey’s belief that black culture is ‘monolithic’, even when black crimes in London are largely the product of a combination between East End London’s historical gang culture and black immigrants’ socio-economical circumstances. Blackness elsewhere in the UK cannot be characterised as this so easily, nor should it largely determine one’s identity – just as whites shouldn’t be conditioned by their ‘whiteness’.
Nevertheless, Starkey’s output as a historian should still be highly valued, especially through his maverick persona. Unlike many within his field of expertise, Starkey’s early life was far from being ideal or privileged, having been brought up in a poor Quaker household whilst he suffered from several disadvantages in early post-war Britain – club feet, polio, and his struggles with homosexuality being only some of them. His well-known confrontation with Laurie Penny (which was provoked by the latter) is a prime example of how one’s past can shape his/her views and the pride that energises it. It can only be hoped that some form of redemption can be found for Starkey through those who still appreciate his talents, and that he receives his own Festschrift like Taylor once had by Martin Gilbert. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean we should forget their contributions in explaining the world’s past and its intricacies.
Alex Johnson is a Co-editor of The Jackdaw.