David Starkey: Interviewed By The Guardian

Historians in the News

John Crace, The Guardian (London), 09 Nov. 2004

David Starkey is not your average history don. He's loud and opinionated and, to compound those crimes, he's a TV face and very, very rich. It's an explosive mixture that has had erstwhile colleagues and media pundits alike queuing round the block to stab him in the front. And right now Starkey may well have given them the perfect ammo to plunge the blade in still deeper.

For his latest TV series, Monarchy, Starkey has stepped outside his familiar territory of Tudor scholarship to tackle 1,500 years of English history. It's involved some frantic mugging up as he was forced to reacquaint himself with a few dozen kings and queens - and, in the case of characters such as Redbald and Penda, you rather suspect he was introducing himself for the first time.

"Oh, I'm sure I'm stepping on dozens of toes," he says with a characteristically bullish grin."I've tried to eliminate the really crass errors but I've no doubt that I've made huge numbers of mistakes. That's the name of the game when you're looking at the big picture.

"Historians have become far too precious. Their work has become ever more specialised and, as they steadily lose the context of their studies, they end up knowing more and more about less and less. It's a malaise that has now infected A-levels and GCSEs.

"The head of history at Manchester Grammar recently told me there was an A/S level question, 'Discuss Archbishop Cranmer's role in the formation of religious policy between 1534-39'. It's absurd. There's only two people in the country - myself and Diarmaid MacCullough - who could answer that question, and we would disagree."

You could argue that Starkey has a vested interest in defending the broad-brush approach, but even his opponents would have to concede that its ramifications stretch beyond taking history out of the classroom and raising the intellectual content of a Monday night's TV viewing by several dozen percentage points.

The central thesis of Monarchy is the relationship between those who govern and the governed, and the length of time it takes for a liberal democracy to evolve. Starkey wastes no time in drawing parallels with modern-day Iraq.

"The notion that you can duff up a country for three months, pacify it for a bit longer and then miraculously transform it into a liberal democracy is just ludicrous," he says."You might achieve some kind of democracy: it's the liberal bit I take issue with. How can you possibly telescope 1,500 years of history into a few months to create a representative parliamentary democracy?"

As a general rule, though, Starkey does not subscribe to the theory of history as a deployed memory to provide solutions for the present. He believes it should be first and foremost a pleasure, a source of great stories and a place where people can make associations with the past and present and find a sense of identity.

"Ideally, history should exist as a form of collective memory. Churchill may have made some horrendous mistakes - Gallipoli, for one - but he had a sense of the profundity and integrity of the English experience," he argues.

"By contrast, Blair believes he excised the past in 1997, though what no one on the left seems to have realised is that his historic mission was to destroy the Labour party, not the Tories. In fact, he just completed Thatcher perfectly. When he says he feels the hand of history on his shoulder, he thinks he will be hailed as a messianic figure who has remade history. In fact, it reveals him merely to be shallow and arrogant in equal measure."

With his outspoken views, his aggressive style - something he now rather regrets and is keen to tone down - and his provocatively camp persona, Starkey is a parodist's dream. And there have been no shortage of takers - most of them portraying him as a snobbish Tory-boy anxious to line up a knighthood for himself.

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