Norman Tebbit

Backlit by milky sunshine, sitting at an awkward angle, Lord Tebbit looks brittle and frail. This is not what you expect. The former Conservative Party chairman, who will be 70 next month, has been called many things: Michael Foot dubbed him ‘a semi house-trained polecat’; Margaret Thatcher considered him her ‘lightning conductor’; the Tory mayoral candidate Steve Norris dismissed him as ‘a racist and a homophobe’. But frail? Perhaps it’s to do with his hair. Usually, he manages to look bald and serious at the same time. Now though, his remaining strands at the back are almost collar-length – stiff, vertical, ghosting in the light. It is mid-morning. We are drinking coffee in the library of a Pall Mall club, and Norman Tebbit is wearing his Eurosceptic convictions on the lapel of his tweed jacket – a gold pound sign. Somehow, his clothes – Tattersall shirt, no-nonsense brown trousers and sturdy brown shoes – don’t suit his look, which is that of a grey-skinned Pilgrim Father. But they do give an indication of what he will be doing in a few hours’ time: shooting in Norfolk.
‘I was sitting in the car this morning grumbling gently to my driver about how full my diary is this week,’ Tebbit says in a thin monotone. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Indeed, I should be pleased as I approach my 70th birthday that I’m still able to earn a living [as a media pundit and businessman]. I can’t remember how many times I’ve retired, or been retired, now. I am reminded of my age, though, when I’m not feeling well. I had a rather tatty start to last year…’ By ‘tatty’ he means he came down with flu, which developed into pneumonia, which lead to a heart condition bad enough to see him hospitalised. ‘It’s as much as I can do to lift a bag of cartridges at the moment, and I’m limping a bit because I tweaked rather heftily an old scar from Brighton…’ He refers, of course, to the IRA bomb which in the early hours of 12 October 1984 ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton, scene of the Tory party conference. He and his wife Margaret, a former nurse, fell four storeys into the debris. They held hands as they waited to be rescued, bleeding and buried alive, convinced they were going to die. Eventually the television cameras recorded Norman Tebbit emerging from the rubble as in a dusty pietˆ, his feet bare. The damage to Margaret’s spine left her paralysed from her neck down. She has a full-time carer, but her husband still gets up twice in the night to turn her over, so that she doesn’t get bed sores. ‘The limp reminds me I’m mortal,’ Tebbit says with a gaunt smile. ‘My younger son the other day was suggesting we should buy a shoot between us. “It’s a long term project,” he said. And I said, “Have you thought, I might not be too interested in the long term?”‘
It’s safe to assume that Norman Tebbit never suggested buying a shoot with his own father, Leonard, a sometime jeweller and pawnbroker from Ponders End, Middlesex. As we all know, when times were hard Len ‘got on his bike’ to look for work – and found it, among other places, in an abattoir, a pub and on a factory floor. But he preferred playing snooker to working, and Norman, who joined the Young Conservatives at the age of 15, resented his father’s lack of ambition.
Given what he once described as his narrow, dull and impoverished background, did the young Norman ever imagine a day would come when he would be a peer of the realm, heading up to Norfolk for a day’s shooting? A flicker of a grin again. ‘Not really. But someone asked me recently – silly question – “If you had become Prime Minister, what would have been the most important difference between you and your predecessor in the Tory party?” And I said, “I would have been the first Tory prime minister to have been photographed on a grouse moor since Alec Douglas-Home.”‘ He gives a wheezy laugh, so faint it is almost a snuffle.
It’s not such a silly question. Norman Tebbit won Epping, his first parliamentary seat, in 1970. He then held Chingford from 1974 to 1992. He was Secretary of State for Employment and, later, Trade and Industry and, by 1984, was considered the heir apparent to Margaret Thatcher. But after the Brighton bomb he seemed to lose his momentum; though he went on to become Tory party chairman and was generally credited with organising the Tory victory in the 1987 general election, Mrs Thatcher lost confidence in him and, as was her way, let it be known. When she was toppled in 1990, many senior Conservatives on the right of the party tried to persuade Tebbit to stand against John Major. Privately, he still broods on his regret that he didn’t.
‘I chose not to contest it. Perhaps that was a mistake, because either I would have been successful or I would have lost the ’92 election and been replaced – and a Labour government led by Kinnock would not have lasted long; we certainly wouldn’t be talking about a second Labour term. Tony Blair owes me a lot.’ The tight smile. ‘Without me – the way I reformed the trade unions so that he was able to be elected as leader of the Labour Party – without me, he wouldn’t be in Number Ten today. He’s never thanked me. But politics is an ungrateful business.’
It certainly is. The self-appointed guardian of the Thatcherite legacy has recently been waging war against his own party, or at least those members of it who favour a more progressive approach to social issues. In particular, it seems Tebbit has made it his mission to nobble Michael Portillo. In recent months he has attacked the shadow chancellor’s ‘touchy-feely pink pound policies’. ‘I could never quite make him out,’ he said recently. ‘Remember his great SAS speech? “Who Dares Wins”. It made my toes curl it was so singularly inappropriate.’
Not a fan then. So is he worried that, if the Tories lose the next election, Michael Portillo will challenge William Hague for the leadership?  ‘I don’t think there is any chance of the Tory party electing Portillo, because I think he has undergone some sort of emotional trauma which has left him less effective than he was. It has lost him a great deal of support in the Conservative Party.’
Given what we know of Lord Tebbit’s attitude toward gays, or ‘raving queers’ as he is wont to call them, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that his views on Portillo might have been coloured by ‘that admission’.  What is it with Tebbit and homosexuals? Why does he hate them so? ‘I wouldn’t actively seek out someone as a companion on the basis that I was looking for a homosexual,’ he replies, rather bafflingly. ‘But one of the most able organisers in my time at Central Office was homosexual, and I entrusted him with a lot of work because he was very good at it. We got on extremely well together. He was an officer in the TA, and I had no hesitation in accepting an invitation from him to go to the regimental dinner as his guest. On the other hand, he would never have been seen on a Gay Pride march.’
After leaving school at 16, Norman Tebbit worked as a journalist on the Financial Times for a couple of years before National Service in the RAF. Being tidy minded, he says, he loved the ritualistic precision folding of blankets and laying out of kit. Was he also seduced by the camp humour of the Ents Corps? He can see where this is going. ‘I don’t think we had any gays on our squadron. We had an irreverent sense of humour about everything, pranks and so on. It was characteristic of people in that occupation.’
One of the arguments for lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 is that there is evidence of a homosexual gene. Where does Norman Tebbit stand on this nature-nuture debate? ‘There is a great deal of shading, not a clear line down the middle. But I object to the exposure of vulnerable youngsters to predatory older people. We all know there is bit of homosexual experience that goes on between boys in adolescence. Not unusual.’
Did he ever go through a homosexual phase? ‘No.’ Not even a brief flirtation? ‘No, I had the good fortune to go to a mixed grammar school, and I discovered there that there was something called “girls”. We were not adventurous by today’s standards, but we were aware of girls and were taught the facts of life in a mixed biology class. Thoroughly healthy, in my view.’
Would he accept that two gay men can be in love with one another? ‘Oh yes. Of course. We’ve all known some, haven’t we? There can be deep bonds of affection between heterosexuals of the same sex, too. I wouldn’t want to prosecute it or put up a barrier against it. It has always happened and it always will happen, but it is a deviation from the norm and shouldn’t be treated as if it were the norm.’
Lord Tebbit swears by the principles of economic liberalism; can he not see that social liberalism is a logical extension of this? ‘To argue that it is right to say that you should have an open market in potatoes and an open market in sex is to not know the difference between a sack of potatoes and the sexual act.’ That’s more like it – the sort of comeback you expect from a polecat. Tebbit believes that the silent majority in this country still thinks as he thinks, and that the much-discussed ‘new mood’ of tolerance, inclusiveness and emotionalism is just a myth.
He seems such a cold-blooded man: I find myself wondering whether this is partly a defence mechanism against the isolation and repression he felt as a child, and the traumas he experienced as an adult. When the Second World War started, he and his elder brother Arthur were evacuated briefly to Wales. ‘I cannot remember saying goodbye to my parents – I suppose we must have done but we were an unemotional family and I doubt if there were tears.’ He didn’t have an easy relationship with his parents, he says, his father especially, and he escaped from their ‘drab and grey world’ by voraciously reading PG Wodehouse and HG Wells.
Did he grow up too quickly? ‘I was a serious child but then I suppose it was a serious time to be growing up. I was taught to be in control of my emotions. You didn’t make a fuss. My father was in the trenches. He didn’t talk about it, didn’t make a fuss, and I never asked him about it. I wasn’t close to him. I suppose it affected the way I brought my children up. I was much closer to them than my father was to me. Because of my life as an airline pilot [for BOAC from 1953-1970] I was either not there or completely there. And so I was much more involved with them.’
The Tebbits married in 1956, and had three children. ‘After the birth of our younger son, William, my wife became desperately ill and for some months, it felt like years, I was his mother. No experience is wholly bad as long as you survive. It led me to a greater sympathy with women who batter babies. I can understand why a woman after childbirth, an emotional time, faced with several children could pick up the baby and, not meaning to hurt it, shake it and say, “Go to sleep, you little bugger, go to sleep!” I can understand that.’ Margaret Tebbit was suffering from a depressive illness, referred to glancingly but touchingly in Norman Tebbit’s autobiography Upwardly Mobile (1988): ‘She was acutely ill, and a potential danger both to herself and the baby. Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.’ Her depression recurred periodically until the Seventies.
Having been brought up to be self-contained and unemotional, it must have been difficult for Tebbit to cope with the erratic mood swings of his wife. ‘I think, I know, there are occasions where one is driven to tears. But that doesn’t make the case for being loose in one’s emotional control. Not that I am always good at controlling my emotions. I do get terribly angry at times. Never over big issues. Usually when I know in my heart that it is me to blame for the cock up. On the other hand, when disasters happen, I take it rather calmly. Everyone gets frightened, but the difference between fear and panic is loss of control.’
He gives me an example. He trained as a jet pilot with the RAF and lived for the ‘sheer animal thrill’ of flying at high speed. One day during take-off in a Meteor something went wrong and he found himself trapped in his cockpit, his oxygen mask full of blood, and the plane, which was full of fuel, on fire. He assumed he was going to die but, instead of panicking he considered his options, and eventually found a way to break the glass and scramble free before passing out. ‘It made me stronger in a way. I’m no longer afraid of dying. We are all going to die sooner or later and these things just give you balance and judgement in how you use the extra time you’re given. When you have cheated death twice, you can’t bear to waste time. Just because you are in control of your emotions doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate, he adds. He says he used to find speaking at party conferences addictive because of the adrenaline rush. Certainly, he always seemed to take pleasure from his sarcastic performances in the House of Commons. He appeared to have more than his share of that negative emotion, hate. He disagrees. ‘I don’t think you need hate to have a killer instinct in the electoral process. Tony Blair seems to hate Conservatives. It comes through strongly in his comments about the “forces of conservatism” – in which he bundled me in with the IRA, something which I found distasteful, to put it mildly. I think that hate will cost him dear in the end. You need passion but not hate, because that is indeed a negative emotion, one that springs from fear.’
During the War, Tebbit’s house was damaged by a V1 rocket. When the Germans started using V2s the young Norman became fatalistic, because he could not hear them coming. I ask whether his subsequent brushes with death made him question his fatalism: should he take more responsibility for the choices he made? Had he not given up his life as an airline pilot to become a politician, for instance, his wife wouldn’t have been disabled. ‘And if my aunt had got wheels she would be a tea trolley, but she ain’t and she isn’t,’ he says. ‘What would my life have been like if I hadn’t gone into politics? Well I might have been killed in an airline accident. I might have encountered a long lost aunt in Australia who left me a fortune. It is never a worthwhile use of mental energy to play that game. I did what I did and what happened happened.’
He may not be introspective but does he brood upon his political legacy? Had he retired from public life after standing down as an MP in the ’92 election, he would have been remembered as a formidable performer at the despatch box, as the man who took on the mighty trade unions and won, as a diehard Eurosceptic and as the brilliant tactician who masterminded one of the most successful Tory election campaigns ever fought. Yet now the things most people associate him with are his intolerance towards gays and, because of his ‘cricket team test’ – which held that members of an ethnic minority could not be considered English unless they supported the English cricket team – his controversial views on race relations. Even his own party has turned on him over these issues: in 1997 William Hague said that if Tebbit didn’t want to be part of the team he should ‘get off the field’.
‘Making myself unpopular has never worried me,’ he says, crooking his hands stiffly in his lap. ‘Chasing popularity is like chasing happiness, a self-defeating process. It always eludes you. So I’ve always said what I believed, and thought, to hell with the consequences. I don’t think the country will be a better place if it becomes illegal for a 16-year-old girl to go out with two dogs rabbiting, but legal for her to be buggered by a dirty man old enough to be a member of the Cabinet. And I don’t think many people, if put into a room where they were told what they said would never be repeated outside, would claim that the United Kingdom is easier to govern or is a better place following the enormously large-scale immigration we have had in recent years. I find it very curious now that I am the one who is campaigning for those of immigrant stock to be encouraged to integrate into the mainstream and that it is the race relations industry which is supporting a policy of apartheid. Multiculturalism is a soft word for cultural apartheid. It causes more damage than ethnic unity. Man is a social animal but he is also a pack animal, and a pack has to have common rules and a hierarchy and territory. The pack can’t function effectively with two sets of rules, one set for dark coloured dogs and one set for light coloured. It just won’t work. Muslim countries, not least the Saudi Arabians, always respect me because I have stood up for their rights to run their country their way.’
He is in his stride now, though his neutral tone of voice has not changed: he found Greg Dyke’s comment about the BBC being ‘hideously white’ infuriating. ‘I can only think that if I had observed of members of the Equal Opportunities Commission that it was “hideously black” that it would have caused rather more furore on the Left. It is utterly stupid to call for quotas. If you start playing this quota game for the BBC, or the Army, or the police, it becomes absurd. People should be treated on their merit. Are we going to have a quota for Jewish goalkeepers? If we had quotas for the Cabinet, there should only be two Scotsmen at the most, and half a homosexual.’
Dogs? Packs? Jewish goalkeepers? These don’t seem like sophisticated arguments, but I suppose Tebbit has always prided himself on being unsophisticated, the norm, the common man. He is a hard man to get the measure of because, though he is tactless and completely lacking in public warmth and self doubt, he is also principled, lucid and fearless, unusual qualities for a politician in a democracy. Remorseless and homophobic he may be, but he is incredibly kind and thoughtful to his wife – and these internal and external characteristics don’t quite gel. Theirs is an unusual and deep relationship, with sacrifices on both sides. He pushes her wheelchair, reads to her and helps cut up her food when they go out to dinner. The only chore he hated doing was putting on her lipstick for her, but now she has some use of her hands she is able to do it herself. She, in turn, is philosophical about her injuries – ‘I refuse to keep a diary, refuse to look back,’ she has said. Though he resigned from the Cabinet in 1987, Tebbit was later tempted to return when Margaret Thatcher offered him the education portfolio. ‘But I’d promised my wife that I would quit the front bench. I would have had little time for her and she would have been lonely.’
He checks his watch. ‘Now I really must be getting on my way to Norfolk,’ he says tonelessly. I accompany him across the creaky floor of the library and, slowly, down the stairs to the coat rack where he collects his shooting jacket. His chauffeur will be doing the driving. Does Lord Tebbit still have police protection as well as a driver?  ‘No,’ he says with a wintry smile. ‘I’m not important enough to shoot any more.’


Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a maverick Oxford don who is far too young, successful and right-wing to enjoy the unanimous approval of his colleagues. He talks to Nigel Farndale about ‘the warfare state’, his new book, and why an advance of £600,000 is no big deal


AMONG the hundreds of history books which line the shelves of Niall Ferguson’s study there is a copy of Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. As my eye lingers on it, a favourite quotation comes to mind: ‘Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?’ I repeat the 1st Duke of Gloucester’s observation now, substituting ‘Professor Ferguson’ for ‘Mr Gibbon’.

Wilful controversialist: the financial historian and columnist Niall Ferguson

Ferguson runs a hand through his dark floppy hair and smiles thinly. ‘What can I say? Sorry! I do feel slightly apologetic about it. I suppose prolificacy will soon be a treatable condition.’ Since he published his first door-stopper in 1995 – about hyperinflation in Weimar Germany – there’s been no stopping Niall Ferguson, Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford University. In 1998 he even managed to bring two damned, thick, square books out in the same year – a history of the House of Rothschild, The World’s Banker (1,300 pages), and The Pity of War (623 pages), a bestseller in which he argued that the Great War was England’s fault.

His latest, published on 22 February, is called The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World 1700-2000 (532 pages) and it isn’t even part of a £600,000 three-book deal he struck with his publisher three years ago (after sacking his agent), but rather ‘a little extra one I slipped in’.

His fellow academics, living in scholarly poverty, must grind their teeth when they hear of his hefty advances. ‘Of course, the impressiveness of the deal depends on how quickly you think a person can write three books,’ Ferguson says with the rolling ‘r’s and sinewy cadences of one born and raised in a genteel part of Glasgow. ‘Naive people imagine that authors get their entire advances on signing the contract, whereas the reality is rather different. There is the small matter of delivering the books. And the period of time involved looks like taking me well into middle age.’

For this is another thing which must cause resentment in the academy: Niall Ferguson is only 36. And, worse, he cuts a Byronic figure. Today he is looking well scrubbed, lean and dandiacal in his olive-green corduroy suit, silk tie and polished black Oxfords. One former student recalls seeing a swathe of students – male and female – swoon as Ferguson did his stuff behind the lectern. Yet ask him to describe himself and he will look tortured and say: ‘Oh, I don’t know, six foot tall but with a stoop, nasty green eyes, and a potato face, which is why my family call me King Edward.’ So an attractively self-deprecating manner is another reason to resent him.

Then there is his record as a wilful controversialist. In The Pity of War, for instance, Ferguson rejected the ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the First World War and argued that the blame for the horrific death toll should lie with the politicians: Britain should have maintained its neutrality and allowed the Germans to win a limited continental war because its war aims in 1914 were modest. ‘There is something of the clever-silly about his over-determined contrarianism’ the historian RW Johnson wrote in the London Review of Books.

But what seems most to irk his fellow academics is his reputation as a ‘dial-a-don’. His academic career began conventionally enough. While in his final year at the Glasgow Academy, a no-nonsense grammar school, he won a scholarship to Magdalen, where he went on to take a first in history. But then he chose Norman Stone, a right-wing, hard-drinking historian and media don as supervisor for his doctorate on the German economy from 1914 to 1924.

The two men became friends, and Ferguson took to meeting Stone in a bar at 11 in the morning to read Nietzsche over pints of Guinness, ostensibly to improve his German. Shortly after this he acquired another of Stone’s appetites: for writing ‘why-oh-why’ columns in the tabloid press. He carried on writing these during his year as a research fellow at Christ Church and his two years as a fellow and lecturer at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Sacha Baron Cohen (the comedian Ali G) was one of his students.

Ferguson returned to Oxford in 1992 to take up a post he still holds, that of Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College. His spacious, elegantly furnished study overlooks the quadrangle. It has mullioned windows, a fireplace lined with Russian dolls, and an antique desk with an overflowing in-tray, a laptop and a photograph of his three children – aged seven, five and one – and his wife, Sue Douglas, a former editor of the Sunday Express, now a consultant for Condé Nast and the Barclay Brothers, and celebrated as the supposed muse for the heroine of Julie Burchill’s Eighties bestseller Ambition.

It is late afternoon on a cloudless winter’s day, and the gloom is gathering around us. I ask how he met his wife. It was in 1987, he says, when she was associate editor of a tabloid newspaper and he, after being recruited by the paper’s editor, became one of her contributors. ‘At first she was horrified to have this spotty, emaciated, apparently unworldly type foist upon her,’ he says. She can’t have been that horrified because she soon insisted that a by-line photograph be used to accompany Ferguson’s columns. As he was writing under the pseudonym Alec Campbell, to protect his academic reputation, he put on a pair of thick glasses to disguise himself. Wasn’t be being a bit paranoid? ‘It would have been academic death if people found out I was writing for the Mail. But I was an impecunious graduate and had to keep myself afloat financially.’

Thanks in part to the £500,000 advance he is rumoured to have been given by the Rothschilds to write his history of their bank, Ferguson is no longer impecunious. But he still likes to keep his fingers inky with the odd newspaper column and this is perhaps why some dons dismiss Ferguson’s published work as ‘mere journalism’.

There may be other factors: believing that access to Oxbridge lecturers shouldn’t be restricted to a few hundred students, Ferguson gave an unconventional lecture – ‘Why the World Wars Were Won’ – just before Christmas. It was, and still is, on www.boxmind.com, a ‘webucation’ centre on the internet, where it has had 3.2 million hits. Doubtless this will seen by traditional academics as further evidence that Ferguson is a shameless populist. But he’s not the first media don to have his academic credibility questioned: Roger Scruton and David Starkey are so disillusioned with the academic world that they have given up teaching altogether.

‘I think I’ll keep teaching,’ Ferguson says in his low, steady voice, ‘because I find it stimulating to engage with agile and brilliant young minds. There are times when you curse it because you are marking essays at 2am. But, on the whole, I would miss it. As to the other point, well, Norman Stone and AJP Taylor were maligned because of their journalism, too. It was used to disparage all their work, as if this public engagement somehow devalued their scholarship. Yet there are few historians living today who have written books as good as theirs. It’s just silly to think history should be an obscure priestly activity. I mean, the great saving of the subject is that it is popular – despite what historians do to it. Someone described The Pity of War as a coffee-table book and I thought, “What kind of a coffee table does this man have? One with reinforced steel legs?”‘

When I ask why academic life is so poisonous, Ferguson adopts a gravelly American voice and quotes Henry Kissinger: ‘Because the stakes are so low.’ The problem with academic history, he adds, is that a lot of it is considered inaccessible, especially in the case of his own specialist area, financial history. Ferguson has followed Norman Stone’s advice and based his historical research on number crunching – a painstaking process of detailing economic figures with a little help, it is said, from paid research assistants (another reason why more traditionally-minded dons roll their eyes at the mention of his name).

This is the subject of The Cash Nexus. ‘Our lives are still dominated by the institutions of the warfare state,’ he says. ‘Partly because we live in a demilitarised era, we have forgotten that all our institutions, from the Bank of England to the stock market and income tax – the framework in which we live our lives – had their origins in wars.’ The book is characteristically polemical: America should foster imperialist ambitions if it wants to realise its full global potential; war has been the principal engine of financial innovation; dictators might be better at managing certain economies than democratically elected leaders.

In its analytical boldness, The Cash Nexus reminds you of The Pity of War, a book in which Ferguson calculated the economic cost of killing and reached the illiberal conclusion that, in most armies, soldiers went on fighting in horrific conditions because they had acquired a taste for shooting people or because they were afraid that, if they surrendered, they would be shot.

Generally, the book was well received, and sold more than 100,000 copies. But some of the negative reviews focused on Ferguson’s desire to attack every accepted interpretation of the Great War. Similar accusations – that he is controversial for the sake of it – may well be levelled at The Cash Nexus. Isn’t his ‘What if?’ approach just a parlour game?

‘There is a fundamental intellectual placidity about a lot of historical reasoning,’ Ferguson says, pressing his fingertips together and resting his chin on them. ‘The temptation is to portray events as inevitable, as the results of great, protracted historical processes – you know, like the Holocaust has its origins in the Lutheran Reformation – but my instinct is that alternative scenarios are real and are in people’s minds. Hitler didn’t know what was going to happen. We have this big problem as historians because we know the future, as it were. You meet resistance with the “What if?” approach because people like the story they know, the clear narrative that leads back from then to where we are now, and anything that subverts this elicits howls from the vested interests.’

The phone rings. ‘The answering machine will get it,’ Ferguson says wearily. ‘It’s an internal call. It will be someone asking about committees or stipends.’ Does he dislike college life? ‘On the contrary, with this tutor’s room I’m living out a fantasy I had as an undergraduate. I am essentially here in Oxford because it is the most decentralised, unhierarchical institution in the entire world. You are staggeringly free from a boss to pursue your own interests and teach them.’

He found Oxford ‘deeply intimidating’, though, when he first arrived there at the age of 17. ‘I was intimidated by the public school boys, the Etonians especially. I had none of their savoir-faire, their social confidence.’ So he wasn’t cocky? No feelings of intellectual superiority? He looks at me neutrally. ‘Well, yes, all Scotsmen have a superiority complex, and I think I did suffer from the middle-class Glaswegian notion that being clever gives you a social advantage in a place like this. But I was soon disabused of that and it took me a long time to overcome my misery and anxiety. In the end I retreated into the libraries.’

If his 17-year-old self were sitting beside him now, what differences would we notice? ‘My Glaswegian accent would have been stronger, not that I talked like Billy Connolly, but it would have been more obvious. I was unkempt then, too, by comparison. It took me a long time to work out how to dress properly. Although I’d got the Sex Pistols out of my system at school – the cropped hair, the ripped T-shirts – the Oxfam shop still beckoned.’ But a Sex Pistols approach to the life of the mind must have appealed, because he adds that to be a truly rebellious 17-year-old in the Oxford of the early Eighties you had to be a Thatcherite. ‘

Compared to today, when students are completely cynical and apathetic about politics, the university then was highly politicised, with everyone opposed to Thatcherism. Being a Thatcherite was the political equivalent of being a punk, a wonderful way to shock and outrage.’ He was working as a lecturer at Peterhouse on the day Margaret Thatcher was deposed. ‘We played every recorded version of the Siegfried funeral march. It seemed like a moment of supreme historic catastrophe; a strange mix of euphoria and depression, of going down on a luxury transatlantic liner.’

Niall Ferguson is the son of a medical doctor and the grandson of an anti-papist ironmonger who fought in the First World War. ‘I don’t think my father sees himself as Conservative, but on my mother’s side there was some Red Clyde Freethinking and Communism. I’m conservative in the Burkean sense of believing in institutions which have stood the test of time.’ What values does he take from his father? ‘Work, work and work. To the extent now that I feel guilty if I am not rising early every day and knuckling down to something. I suppose

I do it to win my father’s approval, quite consciously. I also inherited from him a belief in the importance of the family, as well as of a strange 19th-century morality which is anachronistic nowadays.’ Example? ‘Well, I find it immoral to waste money. I always fly economy when I’m doing lectures in the States, even when they offer to fly me Club.’ Really? ‘Well, actually,’ he laughs, ‘I have an overall budget for those trips, so I get to keep the difference!’ His Scottish austerity and prudence, he says, is ‘a constant source of conflict with my wife. She’s English and so doesn’t have my late Calvinist complexes.’ (Evidently they’ve reached some sort of compromise – they educate their children privately and live in a large 17th-century farmhouse about ten miles out of Oxford.)

In the shadowy study, the floorboards creak as Ferguson crosses the room to a cupboard where he keeps his drinks. He holds up a bottle of Scotch. ‘A present from a student.’ Tut-tut, bribery. ‘No,’ he says, pouring a couple of glasses. ‘I’m incorruptible? Although I do accept that the nature of the tutorial as a form is corrupting because, day after day, someone half your age is prepared to sit and listen to you lay down the law as though you were omnipotent. They may disagree, but they will rarely win an argument against you because you’ve read more and you know the techniques.’

Niall Ferguson has been described as the thinking woman’s crumpet. Do the impressionable young undergraduates ever develop crushes on him? ‘No, all I get is disrespect.’ So he’s never been tempted to play The History Man? ‘Do you mean, have I ever had inappropriate relations with my students? When I talked about moral values earlier, I was including sexual morality. I’m terribly, terribly leery of having anything other than an intellectual relationship with my students.’

He takes a sip and smiles. ‘Of course, everyone of your own generation says to you at some point, “I bet you have a good time with all those beautiful undergraduates.” It’s a standing joke, and the only answer I can think to give is, “You have no idea how completely sexless someone is in a tutorial.” The simple difficulty of having to talk for a succession of hours when you would rather be reading a book, or writing one, precludes all thoughts of sex.’

Maurice Cowling, the historian and Tory sage who was his mentor at Peterhouse, Cambridge, said Ferguson had a reputation there for ‘being vigorously and variously heterosexual’. Was he also successful with women as an undergraduate at Oxford? ‘No. I’ve never been successful with women. Marriage has been a safe haven for me from a series of humiliations and disappointments. That is why I am such an uxorious person.’

What does he do when he’s not being uxorious? He used to play double bass in a jazz quintet, he says, but now what he enjoys doing most is reading Harry Potter books to his children. ‘I’m very boring really. I have no social life and am no good at parties. I never know what to say to people. I just feel awkward.’ He doesn’t keep a diary, he says, because he is not interested enough in himself. ‘I’m not at all introspective and I actually find it very embarrassing talking about myself to you like this. I suffer from auto-repression.’

It may be that he continues to answer my questions out of politeness, but I suspect he is being a little disingenuous. Like his hero AJP Taylor, he is prone to self-dramatisation. Also, he seems at ease with himself, is a good mimic and raconteur and has clearly expended much thought on self-analysis. He says, for instance, that he overcame his fear of death the moment he published his first book. ‘Before then I would always dread getting on to a plane for fear that it would go down before I had had a chance to leave my mark, to get my ideas out of the filing cabinets and in between the covers of a book.’

And he says he likes to disappear into history in order to make himself invisible. ‘Studying history is a form of therapy for me because it helps me escape the tackiness of the modern age, the Madonna wedding, or whatever. I just step into my time machine. Being a historian is a form of mental illness, I suppose, because it means you are more interested in dead people than living.’

Well, yes: but his media life – and his wife’s – is the stuff of Madonna’s wedding. And though Ferguson may prefer the company of dead people, he can’t resist a scrap with the living. ‘When I’m accused of something I defend myself ferociously. My love of argument comes from growing up in Glasgow. You can’t walk into a pub there without hearing some aggressive dispute. I was shocked by how much less violent English arguments were. Englishmen see argument as a failure of manners, except in essays. In the Oxford essay there is a premium on paradox and on challenging the conventional wisdom.’

There is a buccaneering spirit in his journalism, but the authorial voice in his books is coldly analytical and unromantic. This, he says, is the opposite of what he is like in person. ‘I am completely at the mercy of my emotions. I am very sentimental about my family and am easily moved to tears by the poems of the First World War. I’m very susceptible to operatic sentiments, too. I can’t get through Tristan und Isolde or Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde without tears. I suffer from advanced romanticisms, which is another peculiarity of this 19th-century world I’m drawn to. I listen to romantic music in the way other people eat chocolates. I wish I could be a much cooler person, but I’m not.’

Ferguson is feeling apologetic again: for his romanticism, for his cleverness, for his commercial success, oh for everything. It’s a defence mechanism against his critics, I suspect. He doesn’t want to seem too good to be true; to inspire envy in others. That is why he needs to invent neuroses. And, to be fair, he does seem to have pulled off some of the psychological paradoxes of which he is so fond. He manages to combine a superiority complex and an affable manner with insecurity, angst and calculated diffidence, and to balance Calvinist austerity with the heightened emotionalism of the Romantics.

We are now sitting in a blue-edged darkness – confessional darkness, he calls it, draining his glass. ‘I think I should go home and purge myself,’ he says. As he walks me down the wooden stairs and across the quad to the college gate, he adds with a smile: ‘Too much solipsism is bad for the health.’