Damp squid: the fall of Niall Ferguson

The Scots-American we can do without.


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.


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.


"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.


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)
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game