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Laurie Penny: The violent prejudices of dinosaur David Starkey

When I criticised him for playing xenophobia for laughs, Professor Starkey showed his claws
  • @PennyRed

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.

The Bigotaurus can be found waddling free in the more exclusive watering-holes of London even in the early years of the 21st century, and although most at home in oak-panelled environments, 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. The creature tricks its victims with a camouflage of adorable sexagenarian buffonery.

When provoked, for example by mentioning issues of tax transparency, this particular dinosaur becomes aggressive, baring the sharp fangs it hides in its ponderous jowls. I found that out during a recent encounter with the beast in its natural habitat. 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, who has often been 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 United States, 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 the temperate climate of Britain. 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. In this country, public debate has become a spiteful, irrelevant Punch-and-Judy show, and professional provocateurs like Starkey are paid to 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.