The NS Interview: David Starkey, historian

“From one queen to another. Oh, I’ve written my own headline”

Why spend a career buried in royal history?
I remember friends saying, "Why don't you do something important, like the history of the Soviet Union?" Now, I tend to wave at them, in their little ex-polytechnics, from my large car.

Has William helped rejuvenate the monarchy?
It's not just the boys. The sight of Charles and Camilla as an old married couple is rather sweet: like Darby and Joan. And there has been the collapse of confidence in the political class.

Will Britain ever be a republic?
The likely scenario if we get rid of the House of Windsor is Tony and Cherie as president and presidentess - at which point the most thoroughgoing republican becomes a diehard monarchy supporter.

Isn't the sentimentality that surrounds the monarchy grotesque?
All governments do this. Look at the nonsense in America, getting worked up over flags. It's pretty safe to devote all this to a sweet old lady who's got no power. Although she's not terribly sweet. She's a tough old boot.

How would you tell your life story?
From one queen to another. Oh, I've written my own headline. It's not exactly rags to riches but there's a strong element of that. I've had at least three separate careers: an academic who didn't quite make it, an all-purpose media tart and then a reinvention as Britain's best-loved TV historian.

People see you as an ogre. Does it bother you?
It's quite useful, really. I simply have to say "Good morning" to somebody and they'll say, "Oh, he's the nicest man we've ever met."

Was Jamie's Dream School a flawed concept?
Yes, the fundamental idea was silly. You come up with these marvellous teachers and the boys and girls say, "Ooh, learning!" and turn into Cambridge physicists. Oddly enough, that didn't happen. Jamie is a very nice man but an abstract idea has never crossed his brain.

What impelled you to do well at school?
My mother was determined to achieve through me what she'd never been able to achieve herself.

What did she think of your trajectory?
She was appalled. She died in 1997, having conveyed her horror about my getting involved in television. That I was gay and told her also deeply damaged our relationship.

Are you in a serious relationship now?
Yes . . . I never thought that would happen. I always used to be a great propagandist for promiscuity.

What are you most proud of?
What I have always enjoyed doing is going against the grain. And I have found that one of the easiest ways to do that is if you wear a good suit and talk with received pronunciation.

Do you not care what people think of you?
You have to develop a thick skin if you're born fairly disabled and are obviously gay.

What's your view of the coalition?
My problem with the government is that it looks to an ex-adman such as Steve Hilton to be its intellectual guru. It's slogan politics.

Has it misled people over the cuts?
There's a contempt, a notion that people are too stupid to face the truth. And David Willetts on universities has been a catastrophe. The way fees have been introduced as [the coalition] savaged the teaching budget is a disaster.

Has the government asked you for advice?
Oh, God, no. I'm too difficult. Gove was a rather inadequate substitute on The Moral Maze, a chinless wonder. I have encountered Osborne only on Question Time, where he was an appalling performer. Politicians have no courage.

You have been critical of Britain's tendency to be sentimental. But do you ever feel that way?
I'm typically English. I'm very sentimental about dogs and quite sentimental about horses. I couldn't give a damn about any other animal - I eat them with impunity.

Do you vote?
Yes. I was radical Labour until I began to shift in my Cambridge days. The first time I voted Tory was for Edward Heath, in 1970. But the first time that I was a convinced Tory was 1979.

Was there a plan?
I have always been - the word "opportunistic" sounds harsh - willing to jump. But the whole of my television career happened by accident.

Is there anything you regret?
Oh, yes - I should have written more earlier. Coming to London in the immediate aftermath of gay lib and before Aids was bliss, but you waste endless time. There are decades of my life you could summarise with an epigram.

Are we all doomed?
No. I'm convinced of human ingenuity.

Defining moments

1945 Born in Kendal, Westmorland
1964 Graduates from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, with a BA in history
1972 Begins teaching at the London School of Economics; stays until 1998
1990 Becomes a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze
2004 Broadcasts first of four history series called Monarchy on Channel 4 TV
2011 Again for Channel 4, makes Kate and William, broadcast on 27 and 30 April

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm