Niall Ferguson: Big brain, big mouth

The US should occupy Iraq for 40 years, Britain should be liquidated and its flag-waving mania is a 'ghastly synthesis of Simon Heffer and Wayne Rooney'. Phew! Oliver Duff meets a historian with an opinion or two
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The Independent Online

Precociously right-wing, rich and annoyingly handsome, Niall Ferguson is the historian liberals love to hate. Critics savage the golden boy of British academia, still only 42, as a media-savvy contrarian who knows the value of a slick sentence, a linen suit and expensive sunglasses.

He is the Harvard professor who as a young man adored Margaret Thatcher and wrote for the Daily Mail (under a pseudonym, of course, or it would have destroyed his academic career, he claims). He told the world to wise up and start being grateful for everything that the British Empire had done for it.

He also risked the wrath of war veterans by arguing that the First World War had not been worth Britain fighting - Germany should have been allowed a mainland European empire. His views on the US and Iraq are gung-ho: the problem with American "empire", he says, is that Washington doesn't throw its weight about enough. It should occupy Iraq for 40 years.

Ferguson's bad-boy persona, prolific writing and ability to bridge the gap between journalism and academia have brought fame, wealth and influence. "I don't think I set out to upset apple carts or be a contrarian for its own sake," he insists over coffee at a smart hotel, between book signings for his latest, 746-page tome, The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred. "Historical inquiry is the quest for truth, and you are more likely to arrive at that by questioning conventional wisdoms."

Those who dismiss him as a "telly don" are envious, the Glaswegian believes: "I don't see a distinction between my academic work and my journalism. They are just different mediums for ideas. If you want to reach three million people you go on television."

His new book clobbers an established historical truth - that the 20th century was America's, and a triumph for the West over Communism and fascism. "It seeks an answer to the question, why was the 20th century so violent considering it was an age of such material and scientific progress?" He traces the most violent outbreaks - in eastern Europe, Asia and Africa - to those areas with a combination of three factors: ethnic disintegration, economic instability and a declining empire. The real story of the 20th century is not the triumph of America and Europe but "the climb of Asia and descent of the West's wealth and values".

Ferguson says we are in the middle of a "huge rebalancing of the world ... a very painful, ongoing transition". China and India's eventual dominance is not certain, but the prognosis for the West is clear: the Asian tigers are at large, so watch your back.

More worryingly, Ferguson believes "the latent civil war" in Iraq could be the precursor for another bloody century in the Middle East and beyond. "If that extremely toxic idea of a clash of civilisations - between Islam and the West - moves into Western European democracies, home to large numbers of Muslims ... the consequences could be frighteningly violent. Ethnically heterogeneous societies can blow up if they are subjected to big economic or geopolitical strains.

"I am not arguing that all multi-ethnic societies will explode - only in very particular circumstances. But we shouldn't be complacent. If we don't learn the lessons of why the last century was so bloody, the chance of it recurring increases."

In person, Ferguson displays none of the glacial exterior he cultivates on TV, indeed he is polite and modest. He's more like the genial supervisor that his former students remember for sharing pots of strong coffee to soothe their hangovers.

His snappy grey suit and blue spotted tie are not typical academic attire. "You should have seen me in the 1980s," he laughs. "We all shopped at Oxfam. I had a particularly ghastly collection of ill-fitting 1950s suits. I was wearing the clothes of the dead - it must have been part of the historian's psychosis."

Success has come at a cost. Four years ago he surrendered permanent residence at the Oxfordshire home he shares with his wife, the former Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas, and their three children, to accept a chair at Harvard. He blamed British academics' pathetic pay for the move. His commitments in the US have steadily grown and now he spends half his time there, a strain on family life.

"I fly back every two or three weeks," he says through a pained smile. " I feel a little bit as I suspect a 19th-century merchant seaman might have felt. I'm a rather too absent parent." Moving the clan to the US was not feasible, because of his wife's career at Condé Nast and his son's preference for football over baseball. "The thing I worry most about is my absence from home." But the excitement of working in the US eases the separation.

"It's where the money and power are," he says, wide-eyed now he's back on subject. "It has been very stimulating to be closer to the imperial metropolis." American students work harder too. "Given all my sentimental attachments to Oxford it's hard to say this, but there is no question that Harvard is the best university on the planet. In terms of resources there's no contest."

Having denied being out to simply upset people, Ferguson drops another bombshell - this time, mid-World Cup hysteria, he gets stuck into St George. The English national identity, he argues, is "a gruesome synthesis of Simon Heffer and Wayne Rooney ... a heartfelt nostalgia for an imaginary vanished England of hobbits in the shires - in contrast to the reality of vomit-strewn streets and demoralised provincial towns". This disillusionment could, he adds, lead to the further rise of the BNP.

He offers a radical solution: liquidate the UK. By casting off the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish, the English could enjoy a bit of their own (healthy) nationalism. And he throws in his lot with the Tories and David Cameron, who is doing a "tremendous" job and "will make an excellent prime minister".

Is he touting for a job? He rejects the idea he could be anything but a historian. "I tried so many things at an undergraduate level and failed them all."


Born: 1964 in Glasgow

School: All-boys private Glasgow Academy

Degree: History at Magdalen College, Oxford

Teaching: Professor of political and financial history at Oxford (now a visiting senior research fellow). Moved for a vast salary to New York University and then became Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Named in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in 2004 (Tony Blair failed to make the grade)

Family: Married to Sue Douglas, well-connected newspaper and magazine executive. Their children are Felix (12), Freya (11) and Lachlan (7)

Books: Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, Colossus, The War of the World

Television series: Empire, Colossus, and now The War of the World, which begins on 19 June, 8pm, on Channel 4