Dr David Starkey, Britain’s best-known TV historian, has led a rich academic life and is a prominent gay intellectual. Here he tells Tony Grew about why Tony Blair is like Henry VIII, why the Pope is right about Islam and what chance the monarchy has of surviving into the next century
Despite his reputation as the rudest man in Britain, Dr David Starkey is on good form when I speak to him. I approach the interview cautiously, aware that a badly phrased question might bring a volley of his trade- mark abuse down upon me.
In the event, the 61-year-old former Cambridge don and gay rights advocate is a pussycat, laughing, joking and even indulging my schoolboy questions about English history.
I even interrupt him a few times and escaped unscathed. Starkey is much more than the television controversialist the public know and love. His approach to history, during a career spanning four decades, directly challenged the accepted idea that big changes come from big causes.
His area of expertise is the Tudor period, and his focus on the domestic intrigue at the court of Henry VIII cemented his reputation. The way many of us learn history is as a series of big events. Starkey thinks that approach is outdated. “That is the kind of heresy that I was taught when I was both a grammar school boy and also at Cambridge.
“It is perfectly clear that very big events can have small causes. Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn really is the only reason why we had the Reformation. Catholicism was doing well in England, Henry had been the most passionate supporter of it, and the only thing that changes all of that was Anne.
“It’s like that wonderful quote from ‘The History Boys’ from that Northern lad who com- plains that history is, “just one fucking thing after another.” I don’t actually believe that is what it is solely, but there is an element of it that is like that.”
Starkey’s atheism has actually led him to take religion more seriously than many historians of the generation before him did. “I always say there are only two types of atheist – Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists!”
“I admit freely I am a Protestant atheist but it means I do have an emotional understanding of what I am writing about, and that is vital as a biographer.
“One of the things I have tried to do as an historian is show that you must take the values of the people that you study really seriously.
“The absurdity is to think that the past must be like the present. It is absolute disaster for an historian to impose his own values on the past.”
Starkey’s spiky persona is part of his media image and one he readily plays up to. His behaviour on Radio 4’s ‘The Moral Maze’ led The Daily Mail to dub him ‘the rudest man in Britain’.
He says that epithet has subsequently earned him an extra £100,000 a year. “Your reputation, be it sweet or sour, grows with each programme. There are obviously different David Starkeys knocking around in the media universe, which of course is a great advantage.
“The reputation for being tough means that when people first meet you, a new TV director or whatever, they are usually pretty much on their Ps and Qs. Then of course they discover that I am really quite human.
“All you have to do is behave with average politeness and people think you are the nicest thing since sliced bread. You very rarely actually have to be demanding or difficult. I think I have several reputations and we won’t go into some of them – not even for The Pink News.”
His recent TV success means he no longer lectures, as he had done for nearly 40 years, first at Cambridge and then at LSE. He thinks that academia is more bitchy than the media could ever be.
“I still sort of teach. Last night I was up in Kendal where I am the president of the local history society. I regret in some ways that I no longer have time to do the real thing but equally I don’t regret marking essays, having to deliver the same lectures year after year and I certainly don’t regret having to sit on commit- tees.”
Starkey was born in Kendal in 1945,the only child of a Quaker family. The poverty of his early life might well explain his delight at accumulating cash from his years of hard study – he was paid £2m for the ongoing three-part Monarchy series for Channel 4.
His early childhood was tough and his overprotective mother was a strong influence on his outlook and attitudes.
Born with two club feet, he felt an outsider, but overcame his disability as well as a breakdown at 13, to shine at grammar school. He left Kendal and his mother behind, enjoying a glittering academic career as an under- graduate and then a fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. London, with its social opportunities for gay men, led him to the London School of Economics, where he taught history from 1972 to 1998.
In 1993 he met his partner, book publisher James Brown. Starkey describes his TV work as teaching, but to a much larger audience, the same lectures but this time with millions of students.
Part 2 of the Monarchy series, which covers the Wars of the Roses to the Restoration, is released on DVD on 20th November. The series is an outstanding academic and televisual achievement, a radical reassessment of the development of English identity, culture and politics, using the monarch, the central institution of national life, as the focus of how the country was formed.
Starkey’s trademark blunt delivery and mastery of his subject makes it a fascinating watch, as he stitches the story of the monarchy from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II into one coherent narrative.
“If you are dealing with monarchical regimes, the personal is the political, as indeed it is within quasi-monarchical regimes like New Labour or Bush’s White House. They are not dead, I only wish court studies were dead, but they are alive and horribly well.”
The third and final series, from James II to the present Queen, will start on Channel 4 this month.
Will historians in the 22nd Century be talking about monarchy as a historical relic? “I am not a betting man myself, but I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it either way. My instinct is that monarchy is looking surprisingly durable. If you look at the European model in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands or Spain monarchy is absolutely central.
“Another outcome is that we drop the whole show and decide we are just a big state called London.”
The third series tells the story of the monarchy in recent times. He identifies the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 as the turning point for the institution, “Up until then the Queen had kept the show on the road in exactly the same way as her father and grandfather, keeping it as it was in 1917.
“Darling, you can’t do that! In fact she had a very good try up until the Silver Jubilee, with the whole notion of the family monarchy as the great representative British family.
“Since then it has fallen to bits and Diana was the final coup de grace. The monarchy itself looks in surprisingly good health, but it is so simply by accident.
“Back in 1997 when Tony Blair was still fresh and washed behind the ears, it looked to be really quite at risk. Once that insidious sense of betrayal and dishonesty and warmongering became attached to Labour politicians then republicanism, which has never really been a significant movement in Britain, fades away again.”
The tension between Western and Muslim values has become a major issue in recent years, and Starkey surprises me by being broadly supportive of the controversial comments made by Pope Benedict about the nature of Islam.
While pointing out that the Catholic Church has a lot of apologising to do before it starts to point the finger at Islam, citing the Crusades and the Spanish conquest of Latin America among the many sins of the Roman Church, Dr Starkey thinks that Benedict’s point about the nature of Islam is correct. “There is nothing in Islam that corresponds to “turn the other cheek”, to the pacifism that I think is the authentic tradition of the New Testament. “Islam spreads in a completely different way from Christianity, which spread through the Roman Empire by conversion and an almost willing acceptance of persecution.
“Islam spreads by conquest. Mohammed even conquers Mecca. Also it has a very clear doctrine of holy war, and it does not make a distinction between church and state.
“Jesus, living under the Roman occupation, gave us the famous phrase: ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. That does not exist in Islam and I would argue that that distinction is the key to why Christianity and progress are so closely related.
“The separation of church and state is the spirit of freedom. It is somewhere that we can escape from the crushing weight of authority. This is why I think the history of Western Europe is a history of progress and the history of Islam is not.”
That separation between politics and religion may also be the reason why gay and lesbian people have gained their rights in Western societies, and Starkey has been a leading advocate of those newly acquired liberties.
He was a vocal advocate for gay rights throughout his career on radio, and has been patron of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality (TORCHE) since 1994. If history shows us that big changes can have small causes, how small a cause would it take for gay rights to be swept away?
Starkey is optimistic that there is not too much to worry about. “It would take a revolution of consciousness for that to happen. There is some sort of religious revival in England going on, but it is so inchoate and disparate and takes place against a background which is so overwhelmingly secular, materialist and consumerist.
“It would need some huge slump or political, military or economic crisis. On the other hand, I do believe passionately that freedoms always have to be defended, that we always have to be aware of the threat to them.
“The threats are much more likely to come from politicians than the Church. The whole security-driven response of New Labour and the Republicans in the States, that is where the danger is.”
The nature of British society is where he derives that optimism that gay rights will not be swept away with a sudden change of government. The place of the monarchy within British life is also likely to remain for the same reason. “The great thing that drives British politics for most of the time is inertia, and the monarchy is the great beneficiary from that.
“Because most of us have decided that politicians of what- ever stripe are such absolute awful shits, the monarchy looks to be quite safe just by way of a reaction against that.”
Monarchy: The Complete Second Series will be released on a two disc DVD set on 20th November, priced £19.99. Starkey’s Last Word is currently on More4 on weekday nights. The third series of Monarchy will be broadcast on Channel 4 throughout November.
This article first appeared in the November issue of the Pink News which is out now