Damp squid: the fall of Niall Ferguson

The Scots-American we can do without.

I

Whatever happened to … Professor Niall Ferguson, and this year’s Reith Lectures? "A bit of a damp squib," reported my daughter Alison from think tank country. What went wrong?

Did some apparatchik in Room 101 at Broadcasting House think that Fergy as Reith Lecturer would fill up a useful bit of Jockland’s regional radio quota:  "fraternal assistance" coinciding usefully with NATO’s courtship of the Salmond government. Who knows? But after Reith the man seems to have overtaken Donald Trump as the Scots-American we can do without. If Scotland is to approach foreign affairs by regenerating our engineering, international law and environmental traditions, why sign up to a military-financial complex whose overblown rhetoric and confused strategy landed us in Afghanistan?

Qualms have rarely beset Ferguson, the macho face of no-holds-barred capital: blue shirt and chinos, young Connery appearance and delivery, with that hint of "You looking at me, pal?" recalling the Glasgow kiss - or head-butt. Sharp sound-bites and a deft way with the statistics – re. GNP, taxation, the killing fields or whatever – perhaps owing to Harvard Graphics as much as to Harvard Campus? Sailing in convoy with fringe-language research assistants, to pluck the difficult stuff, beefed-up "Bad History" is boosted rather than sunk by readable enemies, like Alan Bennett in The History Boys. The geld comes with influential friends on the Financial Times and Wall Street. "What first attracted you to the billionaire Rothschilds?" as Mrs Merton would have put it.

II

An invite arrived for the last Reith lecture on 28 June in Edinburgh. I was in Tuebingen, holding a Walter Scott seminar there with my conservative friend Allan Massie and organising the 22nd Freudenstadt Colloquium on European Regionalism for the SPD’s Ebert-Stiftung. I couldn’t and wouldn’t go, and what I’d read of the lectures and their feedstock Civilisation: the West and the Rest  confirmed a general disquiet. Was the guy safe at any speed?

Take page xxvi of Civilisation’s intro, where Fergy – always adept at name-checking literature – draws his "West v Rest" parallel from James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and R L Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae:

Competition and monopoly; science and superstition; freedom and slavery; curing and killing; hard work and laziness – in each case the West was father to the good and the bad. It was just that, as in Hogg’s and Stevenson’s novel, the better of the two brothers ultimately came out on top.

Eh, wait a minute …

In both novels the good brother doesn’t "come out on top". He gets killed. George Colwan is thrown off a crag on Arthur’s Seat by Robert Wringhim; Henry Durie, whom obsessive rivalry degrades to his charming, evil brother’s level, drops dead when James is exhumed, living, from his Caribbean grave.

James Durie was a great storyteller, and the same might go for Fergy. But one senses that the motor of "History Speaking!" Inc. is running out of gas.

Those research assistants don’t always get "some suitable quotation, please" to fit the name-checks. This turns the diligent reader to an index which is very peculiar – and broadcast discourses which, in transcript, don’t improve matters at all.

No Disraeli, for a start. I turned to Civilisation from Tancred (1847), a pantomime, but with lizard wit and hard-headed realism about the Middle East. I found on page 162 Fergy on Stendhal and Scarlet and Black – in which the revolutionaries of 1830 are aligned "with the utmost force". But Scarlet and Black is about reaction not revolution: Julien Sorel, a plausible youth of the Fergy sort, with a photographic memory, impresses French Restoration conservatives trapped in their myopic game of interest-defending, only to be driven to self-destruction by its terminal paralysis as much as by his own conflicts over ambition, sex, and love. Great literature is personal and subtle, like that. Civilisation is not.

III

"The Rule of Law and its Enemies" has brought Fergy’s moment of hubris:  cometh the man, cometh the disaster.

Reith one, "The Human Hive" starts out by elaborating a Kipling tract: "The Mother Hive" is a metaphor of vibrant individual capital depreciated by welfare deformation – and spendthrift baby-boomers. Though the wise ones in the Fergy version turn out to be Germany (fiscal rectitude), and Norway (oil wealth). Between 1980-2008 Germany retained a manufacturing economy and "community banking" while Britain and Wall Street mocked "widget-making"; Norway nationalised its oil, when Britain’s "finance-friendly" Thatcher in Sir Alastair Morton’s words "blew it on the dole". These images stick, though they weren’t meant to.  

In Reith two, "The Darwinian Economy" we are in the ordure of the financial crisis. Ferguson blames public regulation of the markets, cites lots of apparently epic papers by financial authorities. Yet these (like most of the activities of high finance) are abstracted from any objective analysis of production, of the sort that  Karl Marx – ritually denounced – identified in the "Working Day" section of Capital.

Where in all this assertion is "Fordist" welfare capitalism? Ask in derelict Detroit. Where is oil, up from S1.7 to $ 100 a barrel, 1970-2012? How fares the SME/mittelstand in the domain of Microsoft and Walmart? Who trains youngsters when factories close? Where does organised/disorganised narco-crime fit into the banking balance sheets? Or the military-industrial complex, its princely Saudi clients, and their Wahabi-fanatic friends? Or London’s immigrant oligarchs who so much disturb Ferdinand Mount in The New Few? No reference to any of these in Fergy’s affluent but strangely constipated world.

In Reith three, "The Landscape of the Law" there appears the inevitable demand for property-friendly law. As in Pohl and Kornbluth’s brilliant sci-fi satire The Space Merchants (1953), the public sphere will become the corporate: General Motors takes over the USA.

Well, actually, no. The opposite had to happen once the Banksters had fouled up.  

So there’s no mention of how hyper-trading trashed marginal utility, how corporate lawyers bought the Senate. Bagehot’s pristine markets get in, but not John Ruskin’s environmentalism – 'there is no wealth but life' – and J A Hobson’s critique of the imperial plunder and inequality-driven instability that stemmed from it. Does Fergy register the post-1990 decay, shown in Misha Glenny’s reportage, from the liberal ideals of The Rebirth of History (1991) to the plutocrat-and-gangster states of McMafia (2008) and their indispensable London Geldwascherei? Don’t ask.

In Reith four our hero finally reaches Edinburgh. 'Civil Society and its Enemies' has market, Motherhood, Apple Pie, and the Big Society cleaning up the polluted Welsh beach chez Fergy that the lazy state ignores. He pats Free Schools on the head; after all he is advising Michael Gove, another noisy Scots renegade. A few representative local profs – John Haldane, John Curtis (sic), Colin Kidd – question and get slapped down. Ernest Gellner’s 'strong civil society' of the Scots 'estates' – Kirk, Law, Burghs, Colleges – is ignored.

Yet plastic-soiled beaches are the pendant to the rise of marine oil and gas, which vomits the stuff out as by-product. Chris Smout, Doyen of Scots Historians – does Fergy even know of him? –  tells in his fine "Land and Sea" essay in the Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (2012) how we have been afflicted by a commerce as "heartless and witless" as Thomas Hardy’s "nature",  which it has wrecked:

The productivity of the North Sea is one tenth of what it was in 1883 … Greenhouse gas emissions fell by 13 per cent between 1995 and 2004 … but if we take into account those emissions generated by manufacturing imports, they rose by 11 per cent over the same period.

III

Civilisation’s "killer apps" – inevitably a borrowing from disjaikit yoof thumbing its handhelds, fathoming the factflood through peremptory commands  – would have been commonplace in T S Ashton’s day. Competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic simply enable Fergy –  the M’Choakumchild for our own Hard Times –  to slot in a conventional narrative of the sort we thought Eric Hobsbawm had seen off. But "rapping for executives" is going to leave a lot out.

Look up "environment" in Civilisation’s index, and find a couple of pages, largely devoted to the evangelical American Christian take on it. Fergy may claim to be a Humean sceptic but his readership is out there. In the boondocks, in the airport bookstore, the Romneyites, the Tea Party, are thumping their Bibles and fracking God’s land. No contest.

Goldman Sachs was "vampire squid", Fergy’s Reith is damp squid: not feral but feart.  So please stop. You’re famous. You’ve appeared in The Simpsons. Think.

Go wreck a sand dune with Donald Trump? Do a Huffington? Hug trees? Guest with Springsteen, hollering against the bosses? This is showbiz, after all.

Christopher Harvie's most recent book is "Scotland the Brief: A Short History of a Nation" (Argyll Publishing, £5.99).This piece originally appeared on the radical Scottish website Bella Caledonia.

Niall Ferguson, right, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear