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.’