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)
OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism