David Starkey: A man with strong opinions

As both a compelling television historian and an opinionated interlocutor, David Starkey's reputation precedes him. Even so, the MP John Bercow was shocked by the intensity of his vitriol
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The Independent Online

In 15 years, Dr David Starkey has been transformed from obscure academic to one of the best-known historians in Britain. To his credit are a number of highly successful television series covering the English monarchy, in particular the wives of Henry VIII and the reign of Elizabeth I, not to mention his regular appearances on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze, and BBC 1's Question Time and This Week.

Legendarily opinionated and abrasive, he was once described as "the rudest man in Britain". Today, as I go to greet the great man, I am intrigued to discover whether he is as obnoxious as he is painted to be. In fact, he proves courteous, engaging and agreeable.

A Northern grammar-school boy, he proceeded to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and went on to pursue a distinguished career at the London School of Economics. These days, he is known for his strong, predominantly right-of-centre opinions on virtually every conceivable political topic. He has, though, voted for every political party at some stage, and can now best be described as an independent-minded Conservative.

I ask Starkey what he thinks of the modern education system. This is the interrogative equivalent of driving a car and then discovering that the brakes do not work. He is unstoppable. Starkey is utterly contemptuous of standards in schools and universities alike. Referring proudly to his grammar-school heritage, he insists that those schools "drove you". When he was at Cambridge, he and other state-school products easily outshone their counterparts from Eton, Winchester or Westminster. Students from lesser public schools were "absolutely thick" and "had been shoddily taught". The destruction of grammar schools is "the most shocking feature of late- 20th-century Britain, and directly responsible for the decline in social mobility".

Lambasting Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, he calls their policy "totally, utterly and absolutely unforgivable". I had been thinking of encouraging Starkey to tell me what he really thought, but the need no longer arises.

It sticks in his craw that, nowadays, at Cambridge, "we have to make special allowances for people in state schools": "What we've got now is a sort of sub-American-style secondary education without the compensatory qualities of American Ivy League universities with four-year degrees and foundation years." The result is that "people emerge from school actually knowing nothing about anything... I have no idea what people do with all the years they spend in school".

Some academic élitists argue for a smaller higher-education sector that is generously financed through taxation and does not require tuition fees. Starkey is not one of them. He believes that fees are vital to "academic freedom". At this point, unprompted, he describes Michael Howard's opposition to tuition fees as "idiotic". He tells me that the grounds advanced by Howard were "utterly spurious". In particular, the "I had a free education, why shouldn't others" line was "just guff and Blairite sentimentality of the worst kind".

What does he think of the Prime Minister? He likens him to Charles II, who "never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one". For Starkey, Blair has, "the same slipperiness, the same duplicity, the same ability to tell utterly convincing lies".

Moreover, he sees an analogy between the uneasy co-existence of Charles II and the Tory party on the one hand, and the "bizarre relationship between Blair and the Labour Party" on the other. As he puts it: "There is one party that is yours but you don't like it, and they don't much like you." Tony Blair could have been a Conservative leader, he suggests, but he is not convinced that Blair has any strong convictions.

Not lacking in intellectual self-confidence himself, Starkey is sniffily dismissive of the Prime Minister's claimed intellectual influences, saying, "There are various books he pretends to have read...". Feeling that his excoriation of Blair might have been too all-embracing, he admits that he has to admire Blair as a politician. Blair is certainly "extraordinarily able in the black arts", but reminds him, above all, of Harold Wilson.

As the leader of a machine for winning elections, Blair has proved formidable, but he and his colleagues have been far too busy fighting the next election "to bother themselves with the boring business of government". In Starkey's book, great leaders, from Napoleon to Churchill to Thatcher, have combined a sense of the big picture with a mastery of detail. He is scathing about Blair's "sofa style" of government, and observes bleakly, "It reaps its reward".

Enough of Labour, what does he think of David Cameron? I almost fall off my chair when he begins with the only hedge in the interview: "I am just not sure." He has long complained that the Tory party "made a tactical error by abandoning natural Tory territory to New Labour, but there was no great mystery to what needed to be done". The Conservatives should regularly have voted with the Government in recent years for two reasons, he says. First, "the average Labour MP, who is a deeply tribal animal, goes out and is sick every time he's got to go through the 'Yes' lobby". Splitting your opponents has obvious attractions.

Second, the Conservatives would thereby make it clear that a Labour government is producing Tory measures. The voters would soon conclude that it would make more sense to have measures pursued by a Tory government whose parliamentary party believes in them, than by a Labour one whose parliamentary party does not.

So, Starkey thinks that David Cameron is sensible to support the Education Bill. What, then, is the problem? Cameron is, "Absolutely half-right!" he says. He is less sanguine, however, about hearing Cameron talking about what the Tory middle ground should be, and using "New-Labourish" language.

Starkey reckons that by 2009 or 2010, when education and the health service will still be in a grim state, people will be looking for a distinctive alternative. Profit, the market, and individual choice, as agents of better social goods than any centralised state can deliver, should be back in favour. "David Willetts used to say these things, Peter Lilley said them very eloquently. We Conservatives cannot escape the fact that we are going to have to say them again," he says.

Believing in both personal and economic freedom, Starkey considers himself a Gladstonian Liberal. Above all prime ministers, he admires Robert Peel for his intellectual depth, sophistication and "populist edge".

Having vented his spleen about Blair, Starkey is keen that a Tory prime minister should also receive a rhetorical thrashing. Insisting that the history books should have a deeply dishonourable place for Ted Heath, he brands him "a catastrophe" and "the worst prime minister since Lord North".

This forthright verdict is as good a point as any on which to conclude our exchange. For all the hype about how rude he is, the truth is rather different. Impatient, yes, and opinionated, certainly. Dismissive of specious or hypocritical arguments, absolutely. Intrinsically rude and intolerant, never. That would be to misunderstand the man.

This interview originally appeared in The House Magazine

So, is Tony Blair really like Charles II?

By Ed Caesar


Born: 29 May, 1630

Formative years spent: Fighting Roundheads with his father, Charles I, before he ran out of capital. Travelling the Courts of Europe in exile. Hiding up oak trees.

Character-building defeat: Led a Scottish force of 10,000 men to defeat by Cromwell's armies at Worcester in 1651.

Attitude to Parliament: Cavalier. Countenanced Whiggish interference in the succession and other matters for two decades, before dissolving Parliament in 1681 and ruling as an absolute monarch for his remaining years.

Dicky ticker: Charles died from complications after a stroke.

Misguided foreign adventure: In the 1660s Charles lost a war with the Dutch over trade, which diminished his powers abroad and lost him support at home.

Relationship with America: Master-servant. The English captured New York from the Dutch in 1664 - a key acquisition in the battle for colonial supremacy.

Britpop factor: During Charles' reign, the arts flourished - most notably comic plays, now often known as "Restoration comedy".


Born: 6 May 1953

Formative years spent: Enjoying a middle-class education at Fettes College, Edinburgh. Finding rock, and God, at Oxford University. Growing his hair.

Character-building defeat: Came third in the Beaconsfield by-election in 1982, with only 10 per cent of the vote.

Attitude to Parliament: Increasingly troubled. Despite a large majority, has had difficulty passing his programme of reforms through the house.

Dicky ticker: Treated for a heart murmur in October 2004, after "a bit of fluttering".

Misguided foreign adventure: Frequent singlet-only holidays at Cliff Richard's house in Barbados. And Iraq.

Relationship with America: Servant-Master. See Afghanistan, Iraq, and Blair's fondness for cowboy belts.

Britpop factor: Once strong, now Tony can't even get Thom Yorke round for tea.