David Starkey is one of the most prominent historians and academics in Britain today. Specialising in Tudor history, he has published many books and hosted multiple television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4 since 1977.
Recently, he has caused great offence following his appearance on Conservative commentator Darren Grimes’s YouTube show, ‘Reasoned’. The title of the episode was “Dr David Starkey: Black Lives Matter Aims To Delegitimate British History”.
In the episode, Starkey claimed that the Black Lives Matter protests have been characterised by ‘violence’ and ‘victimhood’. He also said that taking down statues is ‘deranged’ and that the issue of slavery had been settled ‘nearly 200 years ago.’ However, the comments which have sparked the most outrage are “Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there?”
His comments have been condemned by many. Sajid Javid, former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, has led this condemnation and said his ‘Racist comments are a reminder of the appalling views that still exist.’
David Olusoga, the British-Nigerian historian and BAFTA winning TV presenter and producer is also among those to lambast him. He responded that, ‘This is truly disgusting. And by the same ridiculous, twisted logic the Holocaust would not be counted as a genocide.’
The college Starkey attended at Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam College, has described his comments as ‘indefensible’ and have stated that they will reconsider his Honorary Fellowship.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, responded by saying ‘For David Starkey to suggest a genocide did not take place because some of those who were persecuted survived is dangerous, damaging and completely reprehensible. His words are abhorrent, and as an historian with a considerable platform and following, David Starkey’s irresponsible and racist views should be widely condemned.”
Despite the denouncement of his comments from many high-profile people and organisations, Starkey’s views are ones that are unfortunately not that unusual.
Academics like Starkey represent a more polite and insidious form of racism that evidently still remains in much of this country’s elite circles and institutions. Education is one of these institutions and as such academia has a huge diversity problem.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), fewer than 1% of professors employed at UK universities are Black. This shockingly low statistic (0.7% to be precise) means that only 140 out of 21,000 academic staff at professorial level identify as Black. Furthermore, within the higher levels of more senior management, only 75 out of 3,600 governors on governing bodies across England, Scotland and Wales are Black.
Black students make up approximately 8% of the UK university population. However, at the top institution of Cambridge University, where Starkey studied, research demonstrated that only 1.5% of the student intake was Black. Shockingly, between 2015-2017, more than one in four colleges failed to admit a single Black British student each year.
Where the lack of Black students is common, is it any wonder that this is the type of environment where Starkey has been allowed to harbour such offensive views and yet still have such a successful career? His achievements have granted him a platform where a dangerous and inaccurate interpretation of history and hate speech can be shared under the guise of intellectual debate and academic reasoning.
If you had heard Starkey’s recent comments in isolation, you would be forgiven for thinking they came from an online troll or figure on the far right. But Starkey is probably one of the most well-known historians and is regularly featured on our television screens or on the radio. His prestigious academic career and vast number of qualifications automatically afford him an aura of respect.
An explanation into how such an alarming view can be normalised is that Starkey fits into an intellectual class where rampant racism and other hateful views are more likely to be underlying and covert. He does not fit the stereotypical description of a racist. He is not a skinhead or a football hooligan or a lost young boy whose life is deprived through a lack of economic and job opportunities. Starkey is a wealthy, well-dressed, well-educated and well-spoken man who attended one of the best universities in the world. He has had an illustrious career and is part of an academic elite who occupy positions of power and influence.
This is an idea that is shared by Baroness Warsi, former co-chair of the Conservative party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet. On the topic of Islamophobia, she stated that, “In 2011, I said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner-table test. I was speaking about those who display their bigotry overtly, but also those who do so more subtly in the most respectable of settings – middle-class dinner tables. […] It is this more covert form of Islamophobia, couched in intellectual arguments and espoused by think tanks, commentators and even politicians, that I have spent the last decade trying to reason with.”
Racism is not just the EDL, the BNP or the KKK as it is often depicted. In the middle and upper classes, it simply exists in a different and more clandestine format. In intellectual circles and academic institutions, racism has long been concealed under the cloak of scholarly debate. The Irving V. Lipstadt case demonstrated that appalling views of antisemitism and Holocaust denial were being spread in the context of historical revisionism. Figures such as Starkey who have an esteemed reputation and significant influence must be challenged when they propagate such a twisted version of the truth.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid-19 pandemic which has put a spotlight on racial inequality, these kind of comments deserve retribution. The times are changing and a man with such a platform should apologise and not get away with such a statement. As the subject suggests, many historians are stuck in the past. I just hope this incident makes permanent Starkey’s consignment there.