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Saturday, 11 August 2012

David Starkey versus Michael Wood: Popular History for Today

Television history, and history more generally, tells us as much about the time in which we live, as about the period and events under consideration. Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the former, where the tyranny of the present is expressed in the retro-projection of current political themes and obsessions in accordance with the tastes and prejudices of commissioning editors. Whereas the printed word affords the opportunity for historians to give expression to a wide range of opinions and perspectives, the compass of views deemed to be acceptable on the small screen is somewhat more constrained. What viewers are presented with therefore, is a distorted impression of historical consensus: the dominance of presentism.

This week witnessed the concluding episodes of two television history series: David Starkey’s ‘The Churchills’, and Michael Wood’s ‘The Great British Story: a People’s History’. Stylistically and attitudinally, as would be expected from two popular historians of divergent preoccupations and characters, the series were quite distinct, both in terms of their style, and in their subject matter: Starkey focused upon key elite figures who helped to fashion the modern world, whereas Wood took a bottom-up slant in line with the Asa Briggs approach to popular history. Whilst Starkey did seek to emphasise connections between the past and the present, albeit in the form of two pasts intersecting in the life and writings of Winston Churchill, it was Wood who rounded off his series with a direct and heavily politicised summation of our history with specific reference to the present and its realities. Whereas Starkey sought to draw lessons from the past, Wood was happy for the past to yield to the present, and to selectively distort the former to propagate the official myth that we are “a nation of immigrants”.

Starkey and Wood are of the same post-war generation, the two men being born in 1945 and 1948 respectively, with Starkey’s specialism lying in the Tudor period and Wood’s in the Dark Ages. However, whereas Starkey excelled at Cambridge, obtained his doctorate and has enjoyed a career encompassing stints at his alma mater, the LSE and now as a visiting professor at the University of Kent, Wood failed to complete his doctoral research at Oxford, turning instead to journalism before going on to make a number of popular history programmes for television. Whereas both – as well as Simon Schama, born in 1945 – came of age in the 1960s, their reactions to the cultural revolution initiated in that decade – specifically to its insistence upon the transcendence of the nation-state and of national identities rooted in descent and continuity – have been quite different. Starkey clearly bemoans the negative effects that this attitude and attendant policies have brought in their train, whereas Wood perceives them as positive and something to be “celebrated”.

Wood’s Vision: Multiple Identities as the Norm
It was telling that in his introduction to the last instalment of his series, even Wood was compelled to acknowledge that in the decades immediately preceding World War I “Together at work and play, the British knew who they were.” Moreover, he conceded: “It was working class patriotism that made the volunteer armies in the first total war.” Thus, despite what was to follow, Wood had conceded that British identity during this period was not problematic, for we did not have to examine who we were, for we knew. Today, those of us who lost members of our families, those “working class” volunteers who fell in Flanders fields and on the Somme, still know who we are. For us, our identities are not “problematic”.

Wood charted our decline which set in with the profligate waste of human and material resources in the First World War, followed by the failure of our industries to keep pace with the innovations of emergent competitors in the interwar period, the Great Depression, the devastation of World War II, and thence onwards to the post-war evisceration of our industrial economy with the decimation of shipbuilding, textiles, mining and steel, leaving Britain as the “first post-industrial nation”. Accompanying these changes was a radical reshaping of the country’s – specifically of England’s (although this was not mentioned) – demography brought about by mass immigration from the Commonwealth. He mentioned the Commonwealth Conference of 1947 which shaped the British Nationality Act of 1948, a piece of legislation that redefined what it was to be a British citizen, being in his words “ecumenical, cosmopolitan and liberal . . . an astounding vision of the future.” 

Wood claimed that without the half a million immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa “a war battered economy would have ground to a halt” owing to a “chronic labour shortage.” This influx was stimulated by slogans such as “Your mother country needs you”, and Wood fell back upon making spurious historical comparisons between post-war immigration and earlier and far smaller migratory waves including those of Huguenots, Flemings and Jews. The name of Enoch Powell was invoked to provide the presenter with an opportunity to underscore his multiculturalist credentials by denouncing the deceased statesman as having made “inflammatory” and “inconsidered” remarks about immigration. He did not stop to consider whether or not they had been correct. Starkey would have done.

Whilst Wood celebrated the rise of immigrant “communities” and the re-emergence of distinctive Scottish, Welsh and Cornish identities, about the English he remained silent, preferring instead to refer to regional identities. Wood, the Englishman, does not appear to be at ease with Englishness, thus conforming to the stereotype of the national self-loathing exhibited by a certain type of English intellectual. For Wood, the transformation of Moss Side into Somali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other ethnic enclaves was a reason to beam and to make reference to the culinary enrichment that such a presence brought in its train. However, he somehow managed to omit any reference to misogyny, honour crimes, forced marriages and paedophile grooming from his considerations. Wood sees only what he wishes to see, and whereas he grew up in Moss Side, he no longer lives there. If it is so wonderful, why not?

Wood appears to be ignorant of much recent historical and genetic research, and thus feels free to make reference to the Welsh as “the original British”, thus somehow implying that the English are interlopers – just another set of tribal immigrants amongst the many who now inhabit England. For Wood, it is mass immigration that makes our times “so dynamic and so interesting” leading to what he terms “another radical reshaping of our identities” in which “our destinies are inextricably bound together”. Thereafter, he dreamily wafted off into the credits, preceded by a collection of people from around the country declaring what they saw themselves to be.

Starkey’s Vision: a rudderless Nation
The focus of Starkey’s series was quite different to Wood’s, dealing as it did with two specific historical figures and their associated roles in history. It was however, also about the role of the writing of history in the shaping of history; the belief that Winston Churchill’s historiographical endeavours enabled him to better comprehend the situation in which he found himself, and to act in a manner that would extricate the nation from peril.

John Churchill would have made a fascinating subject for a series of his own, but presumably Starkey correctly adjudged that this would have rather less viewer appeal than the name of his illustrious and rather better known distant descendant. The device of coupling the lives of the two Churchills was therefore an interesting one, providing as it did a means of acquainting viewers with the War of the Spanish Succession and the 1st Duke of Marlborough, subjects that they may otherwise have ignored.

Starkey’s history was therefore the stuff of high politics and geopolitics, an elite history from the top-down, that whilst suggesting links between different historical figures and periods, also understood each individual and period in their own terms. Although it was a series that valued the past for its own sake, in the concluding section of the final episode Starkey addressed his thoughts to the present, noting the central defining role of Churchill in national and international politics from the 1940s to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989:
He had given a shape to how we see the world. In 1989 it finished. And we haven’t got anything else. There has been no other Churchill. We really don’t know what we’re doing. We grope. And we’ll continue to grope until, if, another one arises.
In these words, the sense that he was damning our current crop of politicians was palpable. Starkey, unlike conformist popular historians such as Wood and Schama, is willing to make pronouncements on political issues of the day that are critical of official dogma, as exemplified in his remarks on the racial and cultural composition of the 2011 rioters and the role of culture from the sub-continent in the Rochdale paedophile grooming case. Starkey, unlike Wood, does not celebrate the demise of our nation or subscribe to its recasting as a multicultural “nation of immigrants”, and that his voice is still allowed to be heard on Channel 4 does credit to the broadcaster. Can anyone imagine the BBC commissioning a series from Starkey?   

Michael Wood: celebrating our national decline

David Starkey: searching for a new Churchill

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  1. The official idea that there was a labour shortage in Britain after the war does not stand.
    Before the end of hostilities the government carried out a survey to ascertain the sustainable population, which showed less than 40million. Which is why the deal was done with Australia to take unlimited numbers of our people(the £10 passage).
    Also, it was decided to keep our military personnel in Germany for as long as possible. If any 'labour shortages' truly occurred then they were deliberately manipulated by the government.

    1. Some interesting points Brian. A sustainable level of population below that that you mention should certainly be our future goal too.

  2. Two obvious comments :

    1. You write 'with Starkey’s specialism lying in the Tudor period and Wood’s in the Dark Ages.' Wood's interest in 'the Dark Ages' shows why he is so interested in contemporary history !

    2. Quite rightly you praise C4 for giving screen time to David Starkey's series. I allways enjoy C4's history and current affairs programmes even if I do not agree with all the opinions expressed. Such programmes as 'Dispatches' and 'Unreported World' are excellent coverage of issues and parts of the world that other channels avoid. C4 has covered radical Islam more than any other mainstream TV broadcaster. Just remember C4's coverage of radical preachers in Birmingham's Mosques led to West Midlands Police, trying to avoid taking any action about the preachers, instead accused C4 of biased editing of their report and promotion of 'Islamophobia' (the Broadcasting Regulator found that C4 had behaved totally correctly). C4 also has regular interesting reports about radical Islam from Andrew Gilligan. Following the 'Dr David Kelly' case Gilligan would never be given coverage by the BBC.

    Ivan Winters

    1. As you note Ivan, the Channel 4 programmes that you name are way ahead of anything that the BBC produces, and its news coverage of events overseas, although far from perfect, is also superior to the output of the BBC. Andrew Gilligan has certainly produced some excellent and much-needed documentaries. It's a pity that he doesn't have time to make more.

      Apparently the BBC sent a camera crew to film the recent EDL demonstration in Keighley as part of a documentary that it is making. I do not hold out any hope with respect to it being an objective undertaking.

  3. ‘’Today, those of us who lost members of our families, those “working class” volunteers who fell in Flanders fields and on the Somme, still know who we are. For us, our identities are not “problematic”.

    So true,and it always evokes a sense of betrayal when I think of relatives killed in the wars such as the 3 sons of my great great aunt who died giving birth to the third son, and less than 20 years later, all 3 sons were dead too, slaughtered on the Somme. Like most of us I could give several examples of relatives killed or badly injured in both wars.

    Family research instils a sense of identity and an awareness of the sacrifice, dangers and suffering people experienced, but they were still loyal and willing to sacrifice their lives for this country. Remarkable when you consider the stories that emerge from census and other records, with youngsters like my gt gt grandfather being sent to work down the mines at the tender age of 11, and other ancestors killed or maimed in mining accidents.

    They were betrayed and so were we. They sacrificed their future and endured hardships to secure a better future for us, but now we’re told we have no right to claim ownership of this land, the land our ancestors fought for. died for, and whose labour was heartlessly exploited to make it wealthy.

    We’re told our history and culture lacks value or meaning, and requires ‘enriching’ by third world immigration ignoring the fact vast numbers of immigrants often come here to live on benefits and create unrest with attempts to impose conflicting cultural values. Of course we’re not allowed to point out such negatives, we must be sensitive to their values and appease these cultural demands, as we mutely watch our own culture and heritage being suppressed, derided, and ignored.

    If you sense the anger, it’s not due to racism. I’m happy to agree a certain amount of immigration can be a positive experience regardless of ethnicity or skin colour, so long as the immigrants possess a work ethic, and a willingness to adapt to British values and culture. They chose to come here, I didn’t, I belong here, why should I adjust to suit them, rather than them adjust to me?

    If people wish to live according to other cultural values, they are free to return to that culture, even if they or their parents were born here within the last 50 or so years ago, because they still haven’t contributed sufficient time effort or sacrifice to earn the right to alter the culture and values my ancestors bequeathed to me.

    1. There are a lot of us out here who feel as you do. I don't hate anybody with the exception perhaps of the greedy politicians who have swamped this country with people who do not want to integrate, simply because big business wants cheap labour and lots of customers. Look how Tony has cashed in for the favours he did. We and the men who died for freedom in the wars have been betrayed by people like him. I only hope that one day they will receive their true reward. But it's going to take a lot of courage and sacrifice. However despotic regimes have been overturned. We just need a leader and someone in the BBC who believes in free speech and impartiality. Do miracles happen? Perhaps one day!


    2. Dinan and Anonymous-

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comments; I was reminded of a quote that I came across recently, which encapsulates the divisive effect of multiculturalism:

      "Recently we have thought of society as a hotel where you pay money in return for services and you are then free to do what you like so long as you don’t disturb the other guests. Hotels are fine, but they do not generate a sense of belonging. Society is not a hotel. It is the home we build together. It is the place to which we bring our distinctive contributions to the common good."
      (Chief Rabbi)

    3. Dinan, the sacrifices made by our forebears were vast. For more recent generations such as our own which have had the luxury of not having to fight a total war, a walk around any village in our country, possessed of its own war memorial bearing the names of the local men who never returned, is a sobering experience. Although WWII was bad, the Great War was devastating, for besides the names of the dead inscribed on those memorials, we also have to take into consideration those who returned home with missing limbs and shellshock. Generally speaking, they never did receive the "homes fit for heroes" that they deserved, and those who return from Afghanistan today often find themselves in a similar position.

      In a way, it must be harder for today’s veterans, for unlike during the First and Second World Wars, they do not return home to a country where their fellow citizens are all behind them, for many Muslims hate them and are not reticent about expressing this sentiment, and the cause for which they fight is unclear. They allegedly risk their lives for “democracy” and “women’s rights”, and yet there has long been talk of doing deals with the “moderate Taliban”, and within a couple of years Afghanistan will pretty much have returned to what it was before the military intervention. It is not possible to win a war when you do not know what you are fighting for, and your foe is fanatically dedicated to his cause of which he is sure. The Fourth Anglo-Afghan War has been lost.

      As for our country, our people and the issue of immigration, it is a question of scale and volume: we are desperately overcrowded and the number of immigrants is such that they are threatening to overwhelm the host society: our society. London is already effectively lost. How could this have come to pass? We did not wish for it, and we certainly did not give our consent. Our position, as you point out, is not about “hate” as our malicious detractors would have it, but about the straightforward desire to assert our right to national self-determination, which was granted to the subject peoples of the old British Empire, but strangely enough, not to the metropolitan peoples of the Mother Country, or not to the English at least.

    4. Constip, there can be no doubt that the desire for cheap labour and a larger customer base has contributed significantly to political pressure for a policy of mass immigration. It's going to be quite a struggle to tackle those vested interests that wish to keep the door wide open.

    5. Thanks for the Jonathan Sacks quote Ruth. I recall him speaking these words on Radio 4 a while ago. However, I have also seen that he has criticised secularism, which is a far less sound position to take.

    6. I think it is important to remember that "those vested interests" that Durotrigan mentions are ruthless for they are driven by something that has ruined civilisations, nations and even families: greed. The decent members of the BNP and indeed other political parties forgot this. They will infiltrate, corrupt and do whatever is necessary to attain and then cosolidate their hold. We are facing a devious, merciless enemy who at present are holding the high ground. We must never forget this.



  4. ‘’Today, those of us who lost members of our families, those “working class” volunteers who fell in Flanders fields and on the Somme, still know who we are. For us, our identities are not “problematic”.

    A great sentence which just about sums it all up. What can we do to stop the tiny proportion of self-loathing media intellectuals trying to pass off their weird mental processes as the beliefs and feelings of the rest of us?
    Among the working-class and lower middle class indigenous English as you say there has never been a "problem" despite decades of biased crap like the stuff that Wood churns out. We know who we are our and are proud of what our people have contributed to the world. And it is no coincidence that in those areas which most feel their native way of life under threat (ex-mill towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire etc) that you'll find the fastest growing and most entrenched and resilient English patriotism.

    Wood and his ilk may trot out their anti-English tripe till their blue in the face but even themselves must know that after 50+ years of it being rammed down our collective throats it never will mean anything to anyone outside his middle class metropolitan elite.

    1. I agree 80s Bloke that there are many of us who are not taken in by Wood's line, but I am concerned that the daily drip, drip effect of this in the media and the education system will begin to influence the thought processes of many people, particularly of the young. I have witnessed it have an impact upon some people I know, and owing to the fact that I do not regurgitate the rubbish about multiculturalism and 'diversity', some of them have begun to think that I could harbour some less than wholesome thoughts.

  5. The point about Michael Wood's failure to qualify is symptomatic of a wider, and sick, trend. Lets not forget Karen Armstrong, a failed nun with no formal academic qualifications in religious studies, who is regularly wheeled out as an expert by the media, and even referenced by the British Museum!

    1. Well, I suppose that being a "failed nun" is one of the more satisfying types of failure, given the rather more enjoyable opportunities that it can open up.

  6. Well, we all seem to be in agreement so how did it come to this, and how do we reverse it?

    It’s true what you say about reactions from others Durotrigan re your comment on ‘less than wholesome thoughts’ I have relatives who are teachers, intelligent people, but you can’t say anything remotely critical or negative about immigration or other cultures, if you do, they clam up and look uncomfortable, unable or unwilling to voice agreement with the most deserved and non-racist criticism concerning either topic.

    If intelligent adults in the education system react this way, you can imaging the future response from those they teach – totally brainwashed.

    ‘ London is effectively lost' - If this is true I’m tempted to say build a wall around it declare independence and repatriate all assets jobs and wealth to the rest of England.

    1. Your comment regarding teachers tallies wholly with my experience Dinan. I have friends who teach, and I gave up discussing politics in any meaningful sense with them years ago when it became clear that they had swallowed the official line with respect to Islam and mass immigration hook, line and sinker. They were, and still are, unable to discuss these topics in an objective fashion, instead becoming emotive, angry and verbally aggressive. I suppose that it must be hard to face up to these uncomfortable realities when over the years you find your groups of pupils morphing from English into a multinational - often predominantly Muslim - alien mass.

  7. Just as the myth of post-war 'labour shortage' is often used to justify post war mass immigration so also - perhaps more potently, but no less erroneously - is the issue of colonial armies from India and Africa in both World Wars. Whilst, the sacrifices of those individuals from the old Empire should not be forgotten, I fail to see how this should justify the subsequent influx of millions of their fellow countrymen into what was purported to be the 'mother country'. Regrettably, Nick Griffin let this one go on Question Time when Straw predicatbly pulled it from the pro-immigration hat.

    As I have said before, there needs to be a nationalist counter narrative to many of the ideas which are used to instil a moral reasoning within the populace for the process of stripping away of native British identity that is 'diversity' dogma and mass immigration. This will empower our people to have resistance to the relentless propaganda and pseudo moralising of the anti-British project of liberalism and marxism.

    Salford Nationalist

    1. As you note SN, it is true that many troops from the Empire fought for Britain during the two World Wars, but this should not therefore bring with it an entitlement for their descendants to live on our island. We simply do not, amongst other things, have enough space. The subject peoples of the Empire were after all made free and given their political independence. It is interesting that Michael Wood omitted to mention that tens of thousands of “Indians” fought alongside the Japanese in the Indian National Army.

      You are right in stating that a counter-narrative to the “nation of immigrants” dogma needs to be articulated, and this can be done readily enough in a straightforward meaningful fashion without recourse to ideological language that as a rule makes people switch off.

  8. In the animal kingdom animals will risk serious injury or even death competing for just two things, territory and mates. Male lions are known to fight to the death over who's genes. Isn't passing on our own genes, the same set of common alleles inherent to our unique subspecies also our primary function in life. Either the population of Britain does not conform to the most basic natural instincts or those most basic instincts are being suppressed.

  9. Got on this article in error. DO NOT share your views. Nasty, ill informed tripe, and yes I am white,


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