Scottish Field


Tough-talking historian Niall Ferguson’s strident views on everything from Thatcher to empire have made him a subject of controvers­y in his native Glasgow and beyond, finds Alex Massie


Historian Niall Ferguson's views on the world have earned him a controvers­ial reputation

It was JM Barrie, the pride of Kirriemuir and author of Peter Pan, who suggested that in life ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make’. Barrie recognised the thrusting ambition, combined with a relentless work ethic and a certain measure of ruthlessne­ss, that many of his compatriot­s possessed; and if he admired these qualities, then he was also, perhaps, just a little bit in awe of them.

In any case, Barrie’s quip has applied to plenty of Scots in the past but few, in the contempora­ry world, more so than Niall Ferguson. The historian, named in 2004 as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influentia­l people in the world, has come a long way since his childhood in Glasgow. Now based at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California, Ferguson is arguably Scotland’s most prominent historian and almost certainly its most controvers­ial.

He may have left Scotland more than 30 years ago – he is now 55 – but he insists that the west of Scotland has never left him. To him, Glasgow remains crucial. It is where he was born and made and where his rhetorical style was formed. This is a style unconcerne­d with the business of taking prisoners. He says that he ‘grew up in an atmosphere of enjoyably unfettered argument’, and that it took him ‘a long time to realise that Glasgow sarcasm was insulting to people who hadn’t grown up with it’.

The son of a doctor and a teacher, Ferguson enjoyed an agreeably middle-class childhood. Work and the importance of hard work was ingrained early; at Glasgow Academy he was headstrong, gifted and ambitious; a member of an elite academic set wholly aware of their intellectu­al advantages. ‘It was an intense experience’, one contempora­ry recalls, in which quarters were neither sought nor granted. ‘It could be pretty rough stuff, intellectu­ally and we were definitely an elite.’

At the time Ferguson’s politics were on the left. ‘He wasn’t universall­y liked but, although he was quite arrogant, there was an element of the tall poppy syndrome at work too,’ says one of his fellow academics. His political evolution came at Oxford where he came under the influence of right-wing historians such as Norman Stone and Jeremy Catto. Ferguson developed a keen admiration for Margaret Thatcher – an enthusiasm which at an early age marked him out from other young Scottish historians of his generation. He admired her guts and her desire to transform Britain; if that transforma­tion came with significan­t collateral damage then so be it.

As a young fellow at Cambridge University, and then back at Oxford, Ferguson began writing editorials for the Daily Telegraph, as well as trenchant opinion pieces under a pseudonym for the Daily Mail. Outing yourself as a Thatcherit­e historian would have been a bold move too far; it was safer to operate in the shadows. Even so, he once said that as an Oxford student ‘it was obvious that the most intelligen­t people were drawn towards Thatcheris­m and the stupidest people were public-school lefties’.

Still, Ferguson’s ascent was both swift and dizzying. Having begun his career as a specialist in financial history – his PhD focused on inflation in post-WW1 Hamburg – he soon broadened his ambition to encompass larger, more accessible themes. Most notably, Ferguson became a historian of empire. This, in the age of George W Bush and the post-9/11 world, was a lucrative and timely business. Ferguson, a keen supporter of the invasion of Iraq, despaired that the United States lacked the ability to accept its imperial status and, as a result, had neither the energy nor the patience to see its imperial project – and the promotion of democracy and other notionally ‘western’ values – through to its logical and necessary conclusion. The problem was not American empire but America’s disinclina­tion to accept both the logic and burden of empire.

This, it is not unreasonab­le to say, was a position not always welcomed in either the United States or Great Britain. To his critics, Ferguson is an apologist for empire, and one who whitewashe­s its record. Britain’s ‘imperial guilt’ he argues has led to ‘self-flagellati­on’ and, worse, a series of ‘simplistic’ judgements. As he puts it, in typically trenchant style, ‘the rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country’s economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it’s clear. And the counterfac­tual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic developmen­t doesn’t have any credibilit­y at all.’

Warming to his theme, he told one interviewe­r that ‘it’s all very well for us to sit here in the west with our high incomes and cushy lives and say it’s immoral to violate the sovereignt­y of another state [Iraq in this instance]. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don’t rule it out.’

One journalist once suggested that, like ‘other outsize British characters’ such as Rory Stewart, William Dalrymple and the late Christophe­r Hitchens, Ferguson is one of ‘the last children of an imperial class denuded of its global domain, but still carrying a grand vision of their place in the world’. If so, there are occasional shades of Harold Macmillan’s grandiose – and complacent – suggestion that Britain would be Greece to America’s Rome.

The pull of the west certainly proved irresistib­le to Ferguson. New York University offered him a chair, luring him with the suggestion that as a historian of money and power he should really go to where money and power were located. He immediatel­y felt at home there. Even so, NYU proved too small a stage for Ferguson or, at any rate, an offer to teach and lecture at Harvard University was too tempting – and too prestigiou­s – to be declined.

At the time Ferguson was leading a transatlan­tic life; his first wife, the former newspaper executive Sue Douglas whom he married in 1994 and their three children remained in Oxfordshir­e. Return visits to Britain were not always happy ones. Ferguson contrasted the dynamism of the United States with a tired and even paralysed Britain. In 2011, he told the Daily Telegraph that rioting in London ‘confirms my belief that the process of social and cultural decay, the decline of civilisati­on, is pretty advanced in Western Europe’. Ferguson and Douglas divorced in 2011 after Ferguson had begun a relationsh­ip with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali human rights activist and campaigner who has become one of the world’s most prominent critics of Islam. They married soon after Ferguson’s divorce was confirmed.

Despite protesting that he’s unconcerne­d by the criticism he has received, Ferguson chafes at some of it. The transition from research historian to television historian is rarely seamless and the latter are not always held in high esteem by the former. Critics noted that the amount of archival research in Ferguson’s books was in steady decline. Perhaps so, though he could counter that reaching a wider, non-specialist, audience was a greater and more valuable reward. Neverthele­ss, one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is based on Ferguson and the character of Irwin, a contraptio­n telly don, is not drawn altogether kindly.

Still, there was never any escaping the sense Ferguson has a healthy conceit of himself. ‘Through pure accident of birth I’ve managed to stay relatively youthful,’ he told one interviewe­r, further conceding that his television ratings might be lower if he ‘looked hideous’. He continued though, ‘The real point of me isn’t that I’m good looking. It’s that I am clever. I’ve got a brain!’ Not every historian, even those on television frequently, feels the need to defend themselves in this fashion.

“Ferguson is an apologist for empire, and one who whitewashe­s its record

‘I work, therefore I am. I have no hobbies,’ Ferguson says. He is, he likes to say, the embodiment of the protestant work ethic. Though not religious himself, some vestigial trace of the old Scots Calvinism remains embedded in his DNA. The claim he has no pastimes, however, is only nearly true; he can enjoy skiing or surfing and he’s played the double bass in a jazz quintet.

Neverthele­ss, work comes first. Ferguson has published nearly 20 books ranging from a history of the Rothschild­s banking dynasty to The Pity of War, a bracingly revisionis­t account of the First World War. In addition to Empire – in which he concluded that for all its shortcomin­gs the British empire had, on balance, contribute­d more good than bad – Ferguson published in 2011 his Civilisati­on: the West and the Rest, a book that sought to explain why global developmen­t was led by Western Europe before the baton of pre-eminence was passed to the United States.

That, like much of Ferguson’s work, enraged his left-wing critics. This does not displease him. ‘They love being provoked by me,’ he has said. ‘Honestly, it makes them feel so much better about their lives to think that I’m a reactionar­y; it’s a substitute for thought. “Imperialis­t scumbag”, and all that. Oh dear, we’re back in a 1980s student union debate.’

He once told The Guardian that ‘excessive vehemence is probably my greatest weakness’, suggesting that this is what ‘the English’ hate about him. The Americans, by contrast, loved it. There, he has said, ‘I don’t have to put up with any of the crap I have to put up with here’. In the United States, there is no sneering at a ‘cocky, pushy Scotsman’ who is ‘too clever by half’.

He is however ‘a vendetta person’ who never forgets a slight. When the Daily Mail ran a story about the break-up of his marriage to Douglas he vowed he would never write for the paper again. ‘I’m just a very implacable person’, he said, adding that ‘nobody should ever imagine that they can do that kind of thing to me with impunity. Life is long, and revenge is a dish that tastes best cold. I’m very unforgivin­g’.

Above all, Ferguson’s work has sweep. He writes large books on big subjects, the better to explain the inner workings of the world. Promoting his latest book The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchie­s and the Struggle for Global Power, he warned two years ago that ‘this networked world is not going to be a harmonious one. It will be characteri­sed by polarisati­on and, frankly, by conflict’. Ferguson’s work can be read as a response to the suggestion, made most prominentl­y by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that the networked, globalised, planet is ‘flat’. Difference has been ironed out and we are all connected. Ferguson often cites the old saw of a conservati­ve being a liberal who has been mugged by reality; ‘if you don’t want the world to be in a state of perpetual conflict, then there needs to be some sort of hierarchic­al order’.

Power and the exercise of power is, in reality, Ferguson’s true subject. Perhaps that explains why he was drawn to the subject of Henry Kissinger; the first volume of a monumental authorised biography of America’s most controvers­ial statesman was published, to considerab­le praise, in 2015. That project, and being granted access to Kissinger’s papers confirmed Ferguson’s transatlan­tic passage, a situation formalised by becoming a naturalise­d American citizen. Even if he still claims to be in large part a ‘classic Scottish enlightenm­ent liberal’, he has travelled a long way from his Glaswegian childhood. In many respects, however, the United States is a more comfortabl­e home for a worldview that sometimes seems infused with a certain nineteenth-century sensibilit­y. ‘We take freedom for granted’, he complains, ‘and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.’

As John Buchan – another Scot on the make – once observed, the divide between civilisati­on and barbarism is no wider than a pane of glass. That too is a sentiment with which Ferguson would agree.

“Life is long, and revenge is a dish that tastes best cold – I’m very unforgivin­g

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 ??  ?? History buff: Niall Ferguson is easily one of the most controvers­ial Scottish historians of his time.
History buff: Niall Ferguson is easily one of the most controvers­ial Scottish historians of his time.
 ??  ?? Above: From L-R; Niall Ferguson, William Dalrymple, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew O’ Hagan at Jaipur Literature Festival, 2010. Above right: Ferguson with his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at the Time 100 Gala in New York, 2009.
Above: From L-R; Niall Ferguson, William Dalrymple, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew O’ Hagan at Jaipur Literature Festival, 2010. Above right: Ferguson with his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at the Time 100 Gala in New York, 2009.
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 ??  ?? Left: Niall Ferguson (right) discusses the Treaty of Versailles 1919 alongside Eric Hobsbawm (left) and Philippe Sands (centre) at Hay Festival in 2009.
Left: Niall Ferguson (right) discusses the Treaty of Versailles 1919 alongside Eric Hobsbawm (left) and Philippe Sands (centre) at Hay Festival in 2009.

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