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23 July 2010

The NS Interview: Niall Ferguson

“I’m much more concerned about Iran than what’s going on in Gaza”

By Alyssa McDonald

Do you enjoy your high profile as a historian?
The whole point about historians is that we are really communing with the dead. It’s very restful – because you read. There’s some sociopathic problem that makes me prefer it to human interaction.

You have faced criticism for not doing enough archival research.
It’s silly. I’ve done tons of archival work. The Ascent of Money is designed for the general reader, so I wanted to synthesise a lot of stuff.

You’ve recently spoken about the need for a synthetic approach to history in schools.
People stick with Henry VIII, Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr to a degree that’s almost a parody. Kids are not getting the big picture.

Are you going to be involved with the government’s education policy?
I don’t know. We’ve got a meeting at some point but I wouldn’t anticipate any formal role. I’d rather be writing some good book.

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Michael Gove is a friend of yours, isn’t he?
I’ve known Michael for years.

Your approach to history has led to you being described as an apologist for empire.
My book Empire isn’t an apology; it’s a cost-benefit analysis. The absurd claim is that it was all bad. No positive legacy to the British colonisation of North America? Well, duh.

Do you suffer for having been a Thatcherite?
I don’t think so. My opponents seem to find it very painful to have been on the wrong side of that argument and to have lost. If anything, New Labour went further than the Tories had in unleashing the financial institutions.

Didn’t Gordon Brown just take Nigel Lawson’s ideas and run with them?
This argument that deregulation in the 1980s caused the financial crisis completely ignores that the highly regulated market of the 1970s had a huge crisis, too. The derivatives market is a remarkably recent phenomenon and it really did happen on Labour’s watch.

What about countries whose more regulated banks survived the crash?
Guess who introduced the regulatory framework that failed here? His name was Brown.

Do you identify with your latest subject, the Homo atlanticus banker Siegmund Warburg?
On certain things, we agree. The importance of the transatlantic relationship, economically and strategically – well, who could deny that? Politically, he was a man of the left. All his political friends were from the Labour Party, but he never used that for private gain.

Has that kind of relationship between business and politics now gone?
Warburg had political goals. In Washington today, businesses just lobby for legislation that will advantage them. The role that the big banks play in Washington is problematic.

What do you make of Obama’s fiscal stimulus?
There’s a big economic argument over whether the correct response to a crisis such as this is a Keynesian one. I think there’s a further debate as to whether Keynes himself would have approved of such deficits – I’m not sure he would have been at all comfortable.

You backed John McCain for president.
One reason was that Obama is terribly inexperienced in foreign policy, which is a big part of what a president does. I don’t think there’s any sort of grand strategy within the administration for dealing with, say, the rise of China.

What about Obama’s dealings with Israel?
From the viewpoint of the Israelis, this is the least sympathetic government in the history of the state. If they feel Washington isn’t on their side, the temptation to act unilaterally against Iran will grow. I’m much more concerned about Iran than about what’s going on in Gaza.

Where’s home for you?
It will be London for the next academic year because I’m a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Spiritually, it’s New York but, in practice, I’m another of these nomads.

Do you vote?
Not at the last election – I was too disorganised to arrange a postal vote. If only I had. The Tories might not have needed to go into a coalition.

What would you like to forget?
A historian is battling all the time to remember as much as possible.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
I’d love to say I had a grand design for world domination but the only plan is seeing the kids and not missing book deadlines by too much.

Are we all doomed?
Definitely. The question is: will it be a bus this afternoon, or will I wheeze my last in some old folks’ home, aged 90?