As they often do, the career of eminent Tudor historian Dr. David Starkey took an enormous blow, perhaps even ended, over the past week due to racially insensitive comments he made in an interview with Darren Grimes, a right-wing commentator. These comments, which included comparing slavery to the lack of Catholic voting rights, and saying that it wasn’t genocide because had failed to extinguish all black lives and there are still “so many damn blacks” in the UK and Africa, have meant his release from his status as visiting professor at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, and condemnation by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid.
As ever with these things, his recent comments weren’t a case of black-and-white prejudice, just unfortunate phrasing, and an attempt to diminish the horrors of a historical event the effects of which are still felt today, that betrayed a more insidious form of racism. Even some of his seemingly more liberal comments, such as a defence of multiculturalism, were also a defence of the British Empire and its more questionable practices. I’m sure he has the best intentions, but one can’t help but think that phrases like “so many damn blacks” shows inherent, base-level biases bleeding through the façade of intellectualism.
Before he became public enemy number one, Dr. Starkey visited the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, to do a talk on Henry VIII. I, an enthusiastic young A-Level history student, was at the time knee-deep in his history documentaries; he was one of those “celebrities” who almost felt like a family member because you’d heard them speak so many times. Coming to Redhill was a strange decision by Dr. Starkey – it’s not exactly Canterbury, just an ordinary suburban town in Surrey (he didn’t even opt for nearby Reigate, home of the former monastery and stately home Priory School, visited frequently by Henry VIII back in the day). The decision to go for such a modest venue made Dr. Starkey feel more approachable than others of his stature; it made me more naturally predisposed towards him.
The talk itself was engaging and well thought-out, if not particularly ground-breaking. In fact, the most memorable part wasn’t even on Tudor history, but on Islamic terrorism. Starkey, harking back to his period of expertise, full of heretic burnings and divided religious factions, mused that Islam is now as a religion at roughly the same age as Christianity was then, give or take a few centuries. By this logic, the extreme nature of Islamic terrorism (and countries under Islamic religious law) wasn’t a mark on the religion itself, but simply of its age; in 500 years it could be as liberal as the comparatively watered-down version of Christianity that now dominates many Western democracies.
At the time, I thought it was an excellent point, especially for someone speaking outside their area of expertise. Religions of a millennium old are like rebellious teenagers; two millenniums and they grow more mellow with age. But now, I can’t help but wonder if there was a racial element behind the comments. New information has a tendency to colour old experiences; we now know what happens when Starkey talks too much outside his area of expertise.
I briefly met him later in the foyer of the Harlequin, buying a book and getting it signed. Later struggling to read what he’d written, all I could make out, other than the “to” and “from,” was the word “m8,”; he was embarrassing himself, making some geriatric attempt to be “down with the kids.” It was as if, because I was seventeen, he had assumed I spoke text language in place of proper English. It struck me as odd that such a learned man could be so naive when it came to guests at his talk. Wasn’t I, after all, there to learn?
It was, in all, an excellent evening, and I still have tremendous respect for Starkey as a Tudor academic whose populist appeal in the field of history is only rivalled by Andrew Marr and a few others. On top of this, I still object to people losing their jobs or positions from a single comment in almost all occasions, even if in Starkey’s case it was more justified than, say, the recent case of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s fall from grace. It’s not an issue of freedom of speech – these are losses of credentials and jobs, not imprisonment – but a sort of “one strike and you’re out” mindset which is unduly harsh. In any case, it is, more often than not, more self-serving than moral, more a case of institutions distancing themselves from “toxic” people to cover themselves than trying to make a genuine moral stand.
Yet, as with anyone of great repute, Starkey lives within his bubble, struggling to relate to teenagers and viewing black people as “damn blacks.” It’s hard to really be surprised by this – he’s an old posh white Cambridge historian, after all – but he has, nonetheless, shown his true colours. He may be intelligent, but intelligence and wisdom don’t, unfortunately, always go together. It is now, sadly, hard to respect him as much as I once did.