Niall Ferguson Inc, or history as a business

As he moved from journalistic elan to TED-friendly gimmickry, the historian racked up an impressive roster of enemies.

Niall Ferguson winning an Emmy in 2009.
Niall Ferguson winning an Emmy in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, the journalist and historian Max Hastings asked a young Niall Ferguson, then a graduate student in history at Oxford, where he wanted to be in two decades’ time. “He said,” Hastings reported, “he wanted to be the A J P Taylor de nos jours.”

Ferguson, who is now 48, has since devoted himself to realising that ambition with assiduity. Like his hero Taylor, who once boasted that he was “fast on the typewriter”, Ferguson is prolific. Since 1995, when his doctoral thesis on German politics in the “era of inflation” was published, he has written 11 books. He is working on his twelfth, a biography of Henry Kissinger.

Also like Taylor, of whom it was said that his name appeared in print “with the regularity of the Sabbath”, he contributes with Stakhanovite frequency to newspapers and magazines, both here and in the US. Ferguson is good on television like Taylor, too: he has, at the last count, presented six TV documentary series. He was also this year’s Reith lecturer on Radio 4.

The comparisons with Taylor, the prototype of the “telly don”, don’t end there. Although he espouses libertarian, free-market views at odds with Taylor’s professed socialism – as an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s, Ferguson belonged to a coterie of ardent provincial, mostly lower-middle-class Thatcherites that included the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the writer Andrew Sullivan – he shares his predecessor’s taste for paradox and the bracingly counter-intuitive conclusion. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s description of Taylor’s “love of firing squibs and laying banana-skins to disconcert the gravity and upset the balance of the orthodox” could be applied to Ferguson, who is an enthusiastic practitioner of “counterfactual history”.

Revision time

It was the revisionist brio of his book on the First World War, The Pity of War, published in 1998, that secured Ferguson’s reputation with the wider reading public. He blamed Britain, not Germany, for causing the war, which, he argued, had the unintended consequence of fatally undermining the British empire, whose merits he trumpeted in a subsequent book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, published in 2003. (Ferguson’s imperial predilections later caught the eye of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who hired him as a consultant to help with his overhauling of the secondary school history curriculum.)

The journalistic elan of his early books has curdled somewhat in recent years into a kind of TED-friendly gimmickry (though this probably makes his work a more saleable commodity in the US, where now he spends most of his time, as a professor at Harvard). His most recent book, Civilisation: the West and the Rest, is tricked out with a crude, though eye-catching, conceptual apparatus that identifies the six “killer apps” on which he claims the supremacy of western civilisation was based. (In a review of the book published late last year, Pankaj Mishra wrote that Ferguson sounded “like the Europeans . . . who ‘wanted gold and slaves’” and harboured a deep “nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of 1914”. Ferguson complained that Mishra’s article was defamatory and demanded an apology, which has not been forthcoming.)

With his spat with Mishra still unresolved, Ferguson has found himself tangled up in another public imbroglio. This was occasioned by a Newsweek cover story he wrote in mid-August, under the title “Obama’s gotta go”. (If ever an editor and a writer were made for each other, it is Newsweek’s Tina Brown, the neophiliac queen of “buzz”, and Ferguson, the Tory contrarian and provocateur.)

Ferguson launched a full-frontal attack on Barack Obama’s economic record, describing the country the president has bequeathed to the electorate as a “50-50 nation” in which “half of us [are] paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits”.

The article’s demotic fizz (Paul Ryan, Ferguson wrote, “psychs Obama out”) no doubt played well in Peoria, but its deployment of economic data turned out to be dubious, to say the least. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman found “multiple errors and misrepresentations” of official statistics; Ferguson’s old friend Sullivan criticised his “sleight of hand”; and other commentators completed the fact-checking that Brown’s staff apparently neglected. Little of his argument was left standing.

Ferguson, however, has affected imperturbability. To understand his reaction, it is worth recalling something he told the New Yorker in 1999. “Why be a passive, unworldly academic, who expects to sit all day in an ivory tower writing great works that no one will read? After all, history is a business.”

The question is whether Niall Ferguson Inc has overleveraged itself this time.