This interview was conducted in early May 2009 and appeared in Total Politics magazine.
ID: How did you first get into history?
DS: Almost accidentally. It was by no means a subject I was most interested in. Most people thought I was going to be a scientist. My best subjects were physics and chemistry. The reason that I made the choice I did is simple: I am not a natural mathematician. Numbers only mean something to me when they have a pound or dollar sign before them, which is when I become quite good with them. From a very early age I had very high verbal skills. The only thing I was ever any good at at school outside of the curriculum was acting and in particular, our public speaking competition – in those days called elocution. By the time I was fifteen I was a practiced performer in what was then called ‘the stump speech’. Once you’d done that, you were never ever frightened of public speaking.
ID: Perhaps your next TV thing should be the ‘X-Factor’ of public speaking!
DS: It would be interesting wouldn’t it! And most people are so bad at it, including those who are supposed to be good at it. Most university lecturers and teachers are awful.
ID: What do you think of politicians as public speakers?
DS: Very few are any good at all. I can’t really think of any current ones who are. I was never impressed with Blair. Cameron is alright.
ID: Blair was quite a good platform speaker because he could act.
DS: Yes, but if you are to be a really impressive public speaker, there’s got to be content, and of course there never was. There was blather of commonplaces. And also, I don’t think with really good public speaking you should be too keen to please. Blair has a Labrador quality.
ID: Isn’t that endemic in politics though?
DS: Well it’s endemic in current politics. I don’t think Churchill fell over himself in his desire to please. I suppose what has really happened is that the idea of the major political speech as sustained exposition – explanation, policy – that has largely vanished, because most of them don’t have any policies to explain. By no means all the “great” nineteenth century speeches are great speeches, but some of them are.
ID: Wasn’t that because they had no other way of explaining things, whereas nowadays there are?
DS: But how often are they used? How often is there any real exposition of policy at all? What’s astonishing is that we have a prime minister who is supposed to be an intellectual – I’ve never seen any evidence of this, but we are told all the time that Brown was a brilliant student and briefly held a university position. I’ve never heard one word from him that suggests connected thought. If you look at the alleged “great rescue” of the economy there are two ways you can explain it. One is that he was grounded in serious understanding of Keynesianism and all the rest of it, and the other is that Brown is doing what he’s always done best which is throw money at things. And nothing he has said has persuaded me that it was anything other than the latter.
ID: Is there a figure in Tudor history you would liken Gordon Brown to?
DS: Gordon Brown actually reminds me more of a figure of modern literature, there is a real feeling about him of Kenneth Widermerpool from Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’. Widmerpool is the dreadful, plodding figure, who’s only good sport at school is cross-country running. While all his brilliant, charming contemporaries bugger it up, Widmerpool rises! It seems to me that with Brown there is a complete sense of humour and charm bypass. There is that relentless bludgeoning quality with his alleged “brilliant performances” as chancellor, the machine-gun fire of statistics that were always at least ten degrees from the point. But no charm, no wit.
ID: Do you think there’s something Nixonian about him? I’ve always thought that, and what he said the other day about the Megrahi case gave me a sense of “there was no conspiracy at the White House!”
DS: Yes, nobody believes a word. Again, there’s a lovely story I was told by a couple I know who know Mandelson rather well. And one of them said to me: “The only time you ever doubt a word Peter says is when he tells the truth.”
ID: When did you first become entranced with the Tudor period?
DS: Very early. When I was at Cambridge there were were two really dominant figures in the history faculty: Jack Plum and Geoffrey Elton. Plum had already handpicked Simon Schama at that point, and so I suppose I gravitated to Elton. And in many ways I discovered myself by doing history seriously in my third year, when Geoffrey supervised my special subject class and was a wonderful teacher.
ID: Some people have always wondered why you tend to stick with the Tudors and don’t do any twentieth century history. Does more contemporary history not appeal to you?
DS: I am mildly into it. I think the real problem is that there are loads of people who are very widely learnt – from Anthony Beevor to Andrew Roberts – in twentieth century history. Why start from scratch? Whereas what I can do, is use some of the insights and patterns of knowledge that you have from the Tudor period to illuminate certain aspects of twentieth century history. I have after all, written quite widely on the twentieth century monarchy, where I think my understanding of the earlier period can give me different sorts of insights that are useful. The real test of how good you are as a historian is how well find it easy to remember the privy council members of the 1540s than the current cabinet! I wouldn’t want to present myself at all as a specialist in modern history. There are good reasons to stick with the Tudor period. It’s a kind of Goldilocks period, in which you’ve got just enough information, but not too much.
ID: When you started writing books about the period and doing television, did you set out to popularise it, because that’s what you’ve achieved. People have settled on that period as one of the most interesting in British history, I think in large part because of what you’ve done on TV and in your books.
DS: Well that’s very nice of you to say so. Obviously if you’re doing something on television, you expect to be getting an audience of a couple-million plus and when we started we very comfortably exceeded that. I’ve been looking at my own dissertation, which I wrote in ’72-’73. And what struck me about it was that I was quite pleased with it – he said smugly!
ID: Did you feel as if you were reading something by someone else?
DS: I am very masculine in my approach to writing. Writers fall into either two groups: you’re either a mother or a father. If you’re a mother you remember every word, you care passionately about them. But if you’re a father, once it’s done it’s done. There was a wonderful remark by Elizabeth Russell, that’s Conrad Russell the last Earl Russell’s wife, that “old Conrad views the responsibilities of fatherhood as ending at the moment of conception.” That is pretty much my view of writing – once it’s done, it’s done. Most of it was written in six weeks. That’s how I write most things – like a railway train. Once I get going...
ID: Do you do all the research and then start writing?
DS: No, I find huge holes. It’s why I think it’s so important with kids at any stage – but particularly at university and particularly research students – to get them writing. It’s only once you’ve started to connect the material that you realise what you need to know. And you invariably discover huge gaps and things that you thought you knew you don’t know, and I am very sceptical of these people who claim before they write a book to have structured every paragraph.
ID: That’s what Andrew Roberts does doesn’t he? He literally does all the research and then goes to France for six weeks, sits down at five o’clock, finishes at nine o’clock in the evening. I don’t know how you can do that.
DS: I certainly don’t, because that’s not how my mind works. I find myself questioning the material.
ID: You’ve made the period very popular in one sense, but what about shows like the Tudors, that in some senses...
DS: Vulgarise it! The nice line of division between popularisation and vulgarisation!
ID: But there is a positive to programmes like that in one sense isn’t there, because it means if people are fascinated by them - even if they’re historically inaccurate - they think, oh, actually I’d quite like to find out a bit more about that.
DS: They write to David Starkey and say, is it really true that Anne Boleyn slept with her father?! And you reply no, but if you are interested in finding out whom she did sleep with, then see David Starkey’s ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’, pages so-and-so to so-and-so!
ID: So they clearly didn’t employ you as an advisor on this series!
DS: No no! It’s the higher tosh. But the real question is, why does it work? And what is the foundation of this interest? I was actually asked this question by a schoolteacher in the exhibition yesterday and I said I thought there were two reasons, and the first – ‘The Tudors’ simply is this – is that it is a most glorious and wonderful soap opera. It makes the House of Windsor look like a dolls house tea party, it really does. And so these huge personalities, you know, the whole future of countries turn on what one man feels like when he gets out of bed in the morning – just a wonderful, wonderful personalisation of politics.
ID: Compared to how you learnt your history, do you think today’s school age kids and students are being short-changed in how history is taught today?
DS: Yes I do. The core of history is narrative and biography. And the way history has been presented in the curriculum for the last twenty-five years is very different. The importance of knowledge has been downgraded. Instead the argument has been that it’s all about skills. Supposedly, what you are trying to do with children is inculcate them with the analytical skills of the historian. Now this seems to me to be the most Goddamn awful way to approach any subject, and also the most dangerous, and one of course that panders to all sorts of easy assumptions – “oh we’ve got the internet, we don’t need knowledge anymore because it’s so easy to look things up”. Oh no it isn’t. In order to think, you actually need the information in your mind. It’s going back to what we were saying about the construction of an argument on paper – it’s only once you’ve got all those pieces together, and see the holes I was describing. The ‘skills’ basis misunderstands what education should be about. I am really old fashioned and think that education is about the introduction of the young to the best of what is known and has been known. In other words it’s a cumulative process, and that’s not in the least conservative or sterile. If I were made ‘God’ of the curriculum, I would want people to do a really broad course in the history of the last two-thousand years in general, and the last thousand years of British history in particular. They should have a sense of a map of time – know where you place yourself, know the broad intellectual, economic, political movements. You should realise that to assume democracy and freedom are synonyms is the mistake of a tyro. You should know that there were free societies that weren’t remotely democratic, and many democratic societies that were certainly not free. To do that you need broad patterns of both comparisons in time and comparisons in place.
ID: Do you think we’re now seeing the results of that type of education, where very few politicians seem to have any sort of historical knowledge or perspective at all?
DS: I think that’s absolutely right and it also goes along with a particular type of society - if you like the Californisation of the world. One of my American friends said many, many years ago – decades ago – that what you’ve got to understand in California is that with that blue sky and eternal sunshine and lonely beaches, the concept of the past can’t exist. We’re all Californians now! And I think a very interesting example was someone like Princess Diana – from the grandest, upper-crust English background – and yet her references, modes of behaviour, appearance and dress suggested she was born in Orange County. Didn’t she think that Duran Duran were more or less the best thing since sliced bread?!
ID: And she was right! Couldn’t you actually come up with a character from any age of whom you could say that about?
DS: Well, the airhead isn’t a new phenomenon. But what was still particularly interesting was what sort of fecundity she represented. And most of the young women on television it seems to me seem to belong in this kind of Orange County ‘never never land’.
ID: Talking of women in history, you’ve come in for some flak recently for your comments about the so-called feminisation of history.
DS: I can’t imagine why. It seemed to me so such a sensible, gentle comment. If you have a large number of women historians, writing for a readership where a very large percentage are women, you will get a certain kind of editing and presentation of history. It was no more than that.
ID: Couldn’t you make the counter argument that if men are writing about history there will be a particular slant to it also?
DS: Of course you can. That’s precisely what I was saying: that certain sorts of things are put into the foreground like personal relationships, the role of the wives and so on - and I have after all written the definitive book on Henry and his wives - but certain other things are put into the background, like war and religion.
ID: But aren’t you impugning the ability of female academics and historians?
DS: I wasn’t talking about academics at all really. What ninety-nine percent of academics do doesn’t make any difference outside of their own university, let alone have any impact in the wider world.
ID: You also sparked controversy with your remarks on Question Time about Scotland being a “feeble little nation”.
DS: It was a joke! The question was did I think the English should treat St George’s Day the same way the Scots and all the rest of them treat their saints’ days – St Andrew, St Patrick and my answer was no. That would mean we would become a feeble little nation like them and we’re showing every sign of doing just that. The English were – H.G. Wells has this wonderful phrase – “the English are the only nation without national dress”. It is a glory that we don’t have such a thing. If you want to be academic about it, there are two completely different patterns of nationalism in the British Isles – the Celtic nationalism of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, which is entirely typical nineteenth century European nationalism, an invention based on folklore, supposed authentic peasant cultures which are entirely fictional, national dress, national music and some Goddamn awful national poet like Burns. English nationalism went through that phase under Henry VIII.
But if you do really want me to go back to being abusive – I would say that Scotland’s decisions with the Libyan bomber confirms everything I said about them. If you want to see what happens when a country becomes ‘little’ – when you have a government that wouldn’t make county councillors in England, and a Minister of Justice that is an underemployed provincial solicitor – that’s what you get. And I am not anti-Scottish, I love Scotland – my childhood holidays were there, apart from that fact it pissed with rain all the time. But Scotland’s greatness took place not in medieval history when it was a catastrophe of a place, but in its long, long association with England and Britain. The transformation of Scotland from this deeply backward Presbyterian horror of the early seventeenth century – where you still hang a lad in the 1690s for denying the existence of the Devil – to this extraordinary ‘Athens of the North’ the Scottish enlightenment, the amazing products of Glasgow University in the eighteenth century, is when Scotland looks out as part of a greater whole. What’s happened of course is that Scotland is now looking in. It has become exactly like medieval Scotland – the clannishness, the introversion, chucking money at the Edinburgh Festival to make it ‘more Scottish’, that awful parliament, the dreadful parliament building. The self-indulgence of the whole thing, the complete sense of in-growing toe-nail; I mean Edinburgh has turned into a city where you can see its toes growing in.
ID: As someone who is contemptuous of nationalism in the Celtic nations, how do you reconcile this with your own English nationalism, and the fact that most of the glories of England were achieved under the rule of the Welsh, (Tudors) Scots (Stuarts), before England was finally put out of its misery in 1707 and the Act of Union?
ID: What do you make of what this government has done to the Constitution?
DS: Catastrophic. One of the great problems is that when you have no written constitution, there is nothing that is actually entrenched. It’s only respect for convention that holds you back, and Labour has a very bad record in this regard – going back to the Parliament Act – of forcing major constitutional change unilaterally, always, of course, in the name of “social justice” and “nice” things like that. I think the situation that we find ourselves in now is that our structure of government is broken.
ID: So what’s the Starkey recipe for fixing it?
DS: We need a version of the American constitution. When you think of all the silly fuss over the office of Lord Chancellor - when did a Lord Chancellor last do any serious harm? The alleged confusion of political and judicial functions. What’s been so striking about a lot of Labour constitutional reform is that on the one hand it’s done big things that it shouldn’t have done, and it’s also done little things that there was no need to do like fiddle around with the position of Lord Chancellor. The catastrophe is one body being both the executive and the legislative. It means that it does neither job very well. In particular our Parliament is useless as a legislature. It’s why our legislation is so awful. It’s why, of course, MPs have actually got no function. MPs now are at best overpaid social workers.
What we need, I think, is something very much like the American model, and I would go whole hog. I would have a directly elected Prime Minister. The emergence of somebody like Gordon Brown, who is so totally unsuited to the office and never actually been subject to the test of election, would be absolutely unthinkable in America, because from Primaries onwards you are subject to this test. So I think we should have a directly elected Prime Minister. We should have something very much like the American cabinet, which is outside the legislature. We should have an elected Lords. The obvious basis for the Lords are the old counties. The catastrophe of the semi -abolition of the old counties under Heath was a catastrophe. Incidentally, there’s only been one government that’s as bad as this and that’s Heath’s. Heath and Joseph together were a catastrophe. Every single thing they touched turned to something brown. I would go to a Lords that has two members elected from each county.
ID: And the monarchy?
DS: I’m not a Republican, I actually think that constitutional monarchy has served us well.
ID: You were quite rude about the Queen recently. What about Prince Charles, what’s your view on him?
DS: I wasn’t rude about the Queen...
ID: You called her a ‘provincial house wife’.
DS: Well that’s right. It’s what she is. And provincial house wives are not without virtue, my mother was one. They are not without virtue at all, and ...
ID: Why were you happy to receive your CBE from a ‘provincial housewife’?
DS: I didn’t, I received it from the crown. [Laughs]. She’s had the virtues of solidity, of good sense, of rugged determination to stick at the job, and she’s had the vices of a complete lack of imagination, of style, of no interest in anything but horses and farming.
ID: I learnt the other day that she’s a supporter of my team, West Ham United.
DS: Well there you are that’s even more of a problem then isn’t it? [laughter] Charles, you know, is almost the mirror image. I like the idea that somebody gets excited about things like architecture and the environment. Far too few people in Britain do. He’s also got an extraordinarily impressive track record, which really is worth thinking about, in organisational terms. Think of things like The Prince’s Trust. It’s one of the few bodies in Britain that’s got any kind of serious record in genuine rehabilitation, of genuinely getting the young out of this dreadful rut of three-generational unemployment – and as you know we now have getting on for 20% plus of the nation stuck in that rut. Anybody that can help [them] get out is a good thing. I mean, poor Prince Charles, he is in one sense profoundly conservative but like me he’s a child of the 60s. And you know he found himself like Henry VIII, shipwrecked against concepts of marriage as a kind of public act, and the desire for private happiness – and he didn’t have Henry VIII’s available methods of solving the problem [laughs].
ID: What do you think of Nick Clegg?
DS: [Sighs] Do I think anything at all of Nick Clegg? Quite a good looking young man but I mean... There’s a sort of ‘who he’ quality about him isn’t there?
ID: What punishment would Henry the VIII have meted out to Gordon Brown for all he’s done to the country?
DS: Well, when a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer named Thomas Cromwell, had his come-uppance it is alleged that Henry arranged for especially incompetent executioners. [laughter]
ID: Alan Johnson! [more laughter]
DS: But at least he knew how to wield the blade, yes.
ID: Going back to the Scotland, Wales issue, are you in favour of an English Parliament?
DS: In the current arrangement you certainly need something like that. we probably need a genuinely federal system. I can see why lots of reasons why, for historic nations that have come together as Britain did, this would actually be a rather good way of managing things. What I think is much more important, and I care about much more, would be a revival of local government. We’ve recently acquired a house in America in a little town on the Chesapeake called Chestertown. It’s 4,500 people, it’s a retirement community. I was entranced by the town. The core of it’s eighteenth and nineteenth century – lovely and safe and handsome and a civilised community – but what strikes you about it is that it’s like going back to my childhood in a rather bigger town, Kendal in Westmorland which was then 20,000 but is probably a bit bigger now. When I was a boy Kendal had its own fire service, it had its own police force, it had its own mayor and council that were responsible for virtually everything that mattered. Chestertown still has. Now we have this ludicrous argument for the professionalisation of services but if you’re in Kent, where I am, they’re all 30 miles away. Ditto police. 4,500 people is twice the size of medieval York. London under Henry VIII was 50,000. Medieval York was capable of sustaining its guilds, contributing to the building of its cathedral, that vibrant civic life. Again one of the reasons for the kind of disease and sense of atrophy in national politics is that politics should build itself from the grass-roots up. The roots have withered because people genuinely don’t control their own lives. It’s absurd that the basic unit of government in London now is well over quarter of a million. Anthony Jay published a little while ago a quite interesting book arguing that the natural human unit is about a legion or a regiment - it’s about 1000 people. [He argues that] a group like that, where a high degree of common knowledge is possible, is the obvious unit. I think it’s too small. And again you see what’s so different about America is that the federal government can’t change local government. Local government - the county, city structure - is an absolute given. It’s embedded within the law. Look at the number of different arrangements that have been made for the performance of justice in the last fifteen or twenty years. There’s a complete disconnection between units of local government and how the judiciary works, whereas in America there are the courts at county level, the courts at state level, the courts at federal level, and there is a very close relationship between those areas and political boundaries. Again, look at the courthouse. We’ve spent all our time knocking wonderful Victorian crown courts and magistrate’s courts down. In America the courthouse is nearly always one of the great centres of a town or township with an immense pride and history to it. Whereas we’ve gone in for perpetual deracinating change. I mean look at the National Health Service, the millions, billions, trillions that have been squandered on perpetual rejigging, rejigging, rejigging.
ID: Oh come on, you’re know not allowed to criticise the NHS. You’ve almost committed an act of treason if you do that.
DS: There’s this ludicrous notion that an accidental set of arrangements from somebody who I think was basically deranged. Bevan I think was basically deranged. Why should that particular set of arrangements become the definition of patriotism.
ID: Particularly after 60 years.
DS: It bears about as much relationship to modern Britain as, you know, the Christianity of the Bible does [laughter]. It’s a joke, but we’ve touched on a very interesting point. With the loss of belief in real political institutions what you do is you retain belief but it becomes a kind of mere sentimentalism. The most powerful force in English public life at the moment is an absolute sentimentalism. And the worst sort of sentimentalism is that which surrounds the National Health Service. It leads to a refusal to think seriously about things. Again the embrace of certain types of multiculturalism and whatever, they’re forms of gross sentimentality. Refusal to analyse, refusal to look fairly and squarely at consequences.
ID: What do you think your public image is?
DS: Do I have a single public image?
ID: I don’t know, you may have two or three.
DS: I don’t know. I think, in so far as it’s possible to read, and after all I am the last person in one sense who is necessarily aware of it, I don’t watch myself very much, I don’t necessarily read everything that’s written about me, in fact much of the time I deliberately avoid it [laughter]. I would have thought that I’m a bit of an amalgam aren’t I? One the one hand dear old George Austen’s remark about the rudest man in Britain, Doctor Rude, which periodically gets refreshed as with little remarks about Scotland and the Queen. On the other hand I suppose there is a rather cuddly figure who is Britain’s best-loved historian.
ID: Do you think nowadays though that there is a pressure on people in the public eye to be slightly more controversial than they might otherwise be in order to keep in the public eye? You have a reputation for being controversial and therefore are in the media a lot. It’s an advantage to you as a historian, as a TV personality, to be in the headlines, or do your controversial remarks just come out [laughter]?
DS: I think they just drop out on the whole. I mean I don’t consciously work on it, but it seems to me that there are rules to be observed. You don’t go too far. I also think that it’s terribly, terribly dangerous only to live in that particular glare. It’s particularly dangerous I imagine if there’s nothing else to you. I also think that you’ve got to remember - and poor dear Diana the first time in history that we’ve known about a Princess’s bowel movements and vomiting – the terrible danger when the whole of yourself goes public and there’s nothing left that’s private. That sort of celebrity is like the turning inside out, that which should be private becomes public.
ID: Do you sometimes your fellow historians slightly look down their noses at some of the things that you do or say?
DS: I’m sure some do. On the other hand I think that the more intelligent of them realise that the subject will not survive simply within the grooves of academy. That the only way that you’ll get students, and the only way you’ll get people doing A-level, the only way you will in fact sell books, is by history that can be a proper part of public discourse, which is of course where the subject naturally belongs. History and historical writing is much older than the academic study of history. The academic study of history is a complete Johnny-come-lately. It doesn’t get going at Oxford and Cambridge until the last four decades of the nineteenth century. It’s just not taught. Cambridge has nothing by way of a degree until the 1840s. Right through from Newton’s period, well the beginning of the eighteenth century, to well into the nineteenth century there was one degree at Cambridge which was mathematics. The diversification of the university curriculum in Britain is totally a child of the later nineteenth century.
ID: Do you think there’s room for every type of history, analysis, writing, historical fiction. What do you think of Philippa Gregory’s books, for example?
DS: I wouldn’t know I’ve never read one. But I know who she is. I’m a believer in letting it all hang out. I am a libertarian, a liberal. Let it all fight for its place in the sun. There are certain things actually that I think are part of responsible government. I mean the Victorian sense of the preservation of archives, of the making of the same freely available to anyone interested, I think that’s a wholly proper part of state activity.
ID: Do you ever switch off, or are you sort of constantly thinking about what you’re writing or what you’re about to write?
DS: I’m very good at switching off, I like cooking. I like gardening, I like faffing about. I’m very, very domestic. Equally, what can quite often happen is I do my best work when I’m cooking dinner. You know, get something going and then ‘oh gosh, yes that’s a very interesting idea’. I then put everything on hold, rush off, do another hour [laughter].
ID: ‘Is dinner going to be a bit late tonight’.
DS: ‘It’s going to be very late tonight’ [more laughter]. ‘Sit down with those crisps’.
The monarch whose reign you would like to have lived through?
The present one because of modern medicine.
The most incompetent monarch?
Which of Henry VIII’s wives would you have most liked to have married in the unlikely circumstances...
Catherine of Aragon, as we could have both agreed she’d go to a nunnery and I’d go to a monastery.
What are you reading at the moment?
I don’t actually read. Confession: I do not read. I lost the habit of reading once I really started writing. I only read to write.
Last film you went to see?
I can’t remember. I don’t go to the cinema. Probably The Go-Between. That tells you how long ago it was.
Pass. It is interesting, I’ve never really been influenced by fellow historians at all. I don’t know, I don’t really have one.
Least favourite? Beginning with A and A?
Well no. No, no, no, no, no. I think those said historians have their merits. I mean, I happen to find them completely unreadable, but lots of people enjoy them.
If you hadn’t been a historian what would you have been, or what would you have liked to have been?
I always used to have fantasies when I was young about being an architect.
Your favourite view?
Standing in my garden in Kent, looking through the trees at the bottom and imagining that it’s a great park, when in fact it’s just a field that looks like a great park.
Current-day politician you most respect?
Sort of Vince Cable, but they are a very unimpressive lot.
Best British Prime Minister in history?
I suppose it’s a kind of cross between Pitt the Younger and Churchill.
A cross between Edward Heath and Gordon Brown.