Should David Starkey be stripped of his fellowship?

Dr David Starkey in (another) racism row 30 November 2011

After becoming embroiled in another racism controversy, is it time Fitzwilliam College stripped David Starkey of his honorary fellowship?

Yes: Starkey’s views are dangerous and must not be tolerated by Cambridge University, argues Jeremy Evans

David Starkey is a historian. Reputable historians use sufficient, relevant sources of evidence and data as a basis for their conclusions. But when Starkey comments on today’s cultural issues he regularly fails to do so. Starkey has produced some respectable work in his career in Tudor history and can be clever, funny and insightful. Unfortunately, the poorly grounded opinions on culture and race that he is increasingly throwing around have the potential to damage society and encourage racism, and Cambridge University should not condone this behaviour.

Though he has long been associated with rudeness and controversy, David Starkey rose significantly in exposure after his notorious appearance on Newsnight in August. Shocking both the presenter and his co-guests, Starkey made a series of astonishing claims, starting with his accusation that “whites have become blacks.” His explanation of this began with the assertion that “a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangsta culture has become the fashion,” which is true to some degree: gang culture is more often that not rooted around violence, and is certainly “the fashion” for many people. But these people have never been all black, nor do they make up the majority of any race, skin colour or social group. Starkey, in The Telegraph, denies that he was “using white and black culture interchangeably to denote ‘good and bad'”. Instead, he says, he was “trying to point out the very different patterns of integration at the top and bottom of the social scale. At the top, successful blacks … have merged effortlessly into what continues to be a largely white elite … at the bottom of the heap, the story of integration is the opposite: it is the white lumpen proletariat, cruelly known as the ‘chavs’, who have integrated into the pervasive black ‘gangsta’ culture.” This outrageously equates the top and bottom of the social ladder to good and bad, leading to exactly the conclusion that Starkey claims to be avoiding. ‘Gangsta’ culture by no means covers the whole bottom end of the social scale, black or white, and to say so is just as insulting to those who also occupy that end as it is to imply that the higher end – which includes, among others, bankers and lawyers – is necessarily to be admired. In the interview, Starkey also failed at any point to mention any of the other ethnicities that make up the UK’s population: of the 14% that self-define as not ‘White British’, only around 2% are of the ethnicity Starkey was apparently referring to. He combined a few true statements with some very unfair generalisations to form a false and dangerous argument.

Perhaps Starkey should be forgiven – after all, he could have been under the impression that he was presenting a solid case. But recent events have suggested otherwise: in a blow over history teaching in schools, Starkey accused Trinity history Fellow Dr Joya Chatterji of being an “immigrant who was trying to push a multicultural agenda in education.” Shamelessly using personal attacks as part of an argument was a sure sign that Starkey’s logic didn’t hold by itself and undermined his entire academic position, not to mention the fact that he was entirely wrong about Dr Chatterji’s origins. In light of this, his views on culture don’t seem quite so innocent. Furthermore, there is a deeper reason for why Starkey’s honorary fellowship should be removed. A historian credited with a high academic status is one who most people would listen closely to the views of, and therefore has a duty to give fair, balanced and well-researched opinions. Whether his misleading views are the product of ignorance or malice we may never know, but neither is acceptable from an academic. What Starkey says can be extremely dangerous if tolerated by reputable institutions, and for that reason he must be stripped of his honorary fellowship.

Jeremy Evans is a third year Natural Scientist at Corpus

No: Dr Starkey gave a realistic blueprint of how to teach Our Island history, says James Mottram

Dr David Starkey has done it again. Fresh from an abysmally phrased (and incorrect) analysis of the London riots, the famed historian is once again the centre of controversy, after snapping back at a Cambridge historian, Dr Joya Chatterji, and offering a characterisation of Britain which has drawn accusations of racism. And now, some are petitioning Fitzwilliam to strip him of his honorary fellowship.

I do not like David Starkey’s belligerent tone. On those occasions I find myself agreeing with him, I am often unhappy to, because of his unpleasant manner. Dr Starkey is inflexible, arrogant, and downright pugnacious whenever he enters a debate; but that is what draws the crowds. It is what we expect of him, and he plays it for all he is worth. In doing so, he has cast an unfortunate shadow over an important debate, about how history is taught in this country.

Aside from his rudeness, we are left with the inconvenient truth of Dr Starkey’s comment: outside of urban areas, Britain is still a predominantly white country. The population of the UK is 90% white, and two out of three black Britons live in London. In referring to rural Yorkshire, Kent and Dorset as ‘unmitigatingly white’, Dr Starkey was bang on the money. What this does not mean, however, is that people from different ethnic backgrounds have no influence on modern British culture. Of course our country is shaped by the wide array of influences on every aspect of our culture, and that impact is felt no less in rural Dorset than in Hackney.

Dr Starkey is on stronger ground when talking about the teaching of history than he is when trying to paint a picture of modern day Britain. It is impossible to deny that people from ethnic minorities have shaped British history, but in drawing up a course which, over maybe just a few years, must give students a grounding in the national story of Britain, should one place more weight upon Olaudah Equiano, no doubt an important political figure, or upon the great rivals Gladstone and Disraeli? Should students devote a lesson to Mary Seacole, or to Elizabeth I?

Putting the significance of historic figures in context is no insult; in a GCSE or A level course, when students begin to look in detail at specific periods or topics in history, those people from non-white backgrounds who have loomed large in their time will of course come to the fore.

But in a course which aims to teach Our Island Story, there will be few, if any, non-white faces; this is the result of the simple fact that, for most of Britain’s history, the groups of people from which statesmen and leaders are drawn have been not just white, but predominantly wealthy and male. While this rightly represents a less just reality than the one we face today, we can do nothing about it. Revisionist tokenism will not change the facts. While the history pupils of a few hundred years hence will hopefully study a multiethnic pantheon of historic figures, for Britain today the advent of truly multiracial nation is still a recent memory.

Dr Starkey gave a realistic blueprint of how to teach Our Island Story; he did so, unfortunately, in his trademark manner, uncompromising and inconsiderate. In responding to criticism, he only got worse. It is disheartening that a capable historian weakens his academic arguments with such performances; his treatment of Dr Chatterji was, without question, rude. But it was not racist, and it by no means merits a rebuke so severe as the removal of his fellowship.

James Mottram is a second year English student at Selwyn

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Dr David Starkey in (another) racism row