Laurie Penny: David Starkey's dinosaur prejudices


What's your favourite dinosaur? I always preferred the Archaeopteryx, the little stubby bird-ancestor, but recently a whole new species has been discovered alive and nesting in the discursive swamps of what was once British political culture. Bigotaurus Ridiculus, a spiny-hided predator, is not yet extinct, and a danger to anyone looking to create progressive change in this country.

Although most at home in oak-panelled environments, the Bigotaurus can often be seen on Newsnight and Question Time hunting the clear-thinking egalitarian agendas on which it feeds when it can't get claret. It tricks its victims with a camouflage of adorable sexagenarian buffonery.

When provoked, this particular dinosaur becomes aggressive, baring the sharp fangs it hides in its ponderous jowls. I found that out during a recent encounter. At an education festival this weekend, I spoke on a panel about the meaning of "Britishness" with Professor David Starkey, noted historian and hack, who made the argument that English society has become corrupted by the influence of people from other cultures and races.

Describing himself as a lone "voice in the wilderness" and "saying the unsayable", the Professor, often criticised for making racially divisive statements in public, proceeded to say what windbag ultra-Tory talking heads have been saying openly and obliquely for years - namely, that "real British values" are not, as Starkey put it, "entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab".

When I criticised Starkey for playing xenophobia for laughs, and asked why, as an advocate of Britishness, he lives for part of the year in the US, the dinosaur showed its claws. Leaping to his feet, Starkey began with a furious ad hominem attack before marching up to me, wagging his finger in my face, shouting abuse, swearing and showering me with flecks of spittle. If you call a bigot a bigot in this country, you can expect to be attacked, but I didn't expect the sheer thuggishness behind Starkey's brand of cosy prejudice to reveal itself so publicly.

Bigotaurus thrives in our temperate climate. It quenches its thirst for attention at the cesspool of the British media circus, to an audience too deferential to put it in its place. Here, public debate has become an irrelevant Punch-and-Judy show, and professional provocateurs like Starkey create aggressive spectacle that obscures useful discussion. Like the ancient lizards, Starkey and his kind are perilously ill-adapted to the modern world - but they have yet to be consigned to history where they belong.