Margaret Thatcher – Right About Nearly Everything By Niall Ferguson


Just before sitting down to right this review I listened to the news.  A delivery company went bust on Christmas Day.  The venture capital firm that owned it no doubt calculated that this was the most advantageous point in the year to go bust.  The positive cash flow of the festive season would have swelled the money in the bank giving them plenty of scope for spending it in creative ways before the receivers moved in.  It wasn’t such good timing for the workers who found out that they were out of work via the media.  One twist was that the distinctive green and yellow vans were not all owned by the company.  Many were owned by the drivers who were technically self employed, subcontracting their services.  So that will cut the redundancy bill.   In other news it turns out that the UK is poised to regain its economic position ahead of France in the size of the economy. Continue reading Margaret Thatcher – Right About Nearly Everything By Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson: China and Mao Channel 4 19.3.12

The second programme in Niall Ferguson’s series on China opened with a chilling question. If we ask the Chinese to help with bail out western economies, does that mean that they will become our masters?  It is an interesting and sobering question.  But he then proceeded to spend the next hour answering a completely different question, which is how come Chairman Mao is still so popular in China. Continue reading Niall Ferguson: China and Mao Channel 4 19.3.12

Niall Ferguson: China, Triumph and Turmoil Channel 4 12.3.12

Niall Ferguson’s one hour history and sketch of China started with him admitting that he didn’t really understand it – in fact he feels like he is an alien when he visits.  Not a promising introduction, but he soon starts giving the lie to it by pointing out some of those obvious facts that stare you in the face but that you never really notice. Continue reading Niall Ferguson: China, Triumph and Turmoil Channel 4 12.3.12

Naill Ferguson – Civilization Is the West History, the whole series

I have given quite a lot of coverage to the individual episodes of Niall Ferguson’s series Civilization, Is the West History?, so I thought it made sense to round it all off with a review of all six programmes as a whole.   Each of them explores a particular aspect of how the West has come to dominate the world for the last 500 years.  But the title, the tone and even the advertising of this series project lay claim to a high ambition. The aim is surely not just to explain how things got to be this way, but to tell us where things are going.  And we do surely need an answer to the question in the title.  Has domination of the world by the West now run its course and possibly be going into reverse. Continue reading Naill Ferguson – Civilization Is the West History, the whole series

Niall Ferguson: Civilization – Is the West History? Religion and the work ethic

I had watched the rest of the series when it was broadcast and blogged it instantly.  I couldn’t do that for the last episode because I was away at a conference to do with my work.  Not many people work on a Sunday evening, but I think Niall would approve.  In the West we used to work hard, and now most of us don’t any more.  And this may be our undoing. Continue reading Niall Ferguson: Civilization – Is the West History? Religion and the work ethic

Western Imperialism not to blame for Islamic world’s problems

He’s at it again.

Here is Niall Ferguson on the BBC arguing strongly that the problems of the Islamic world are not the fault of Western imperialism but are in fact the fault of, well Islam.

It is a bit frustrating because the person with whom he is debating doesn’t really get his point across very well.  I have a feeling that the counter argument is a bit stronger than this one clip would suggest.  Continue reading Western Imperialism not to blame for Islamic world’s problems

Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Consumerism

The subject of the fifth episode in Niall Ferguson’s series was consumerism, which predictably enough he quite likes.  I think most of us have a soft spot for consumerism whether or not we admit to others or even to ourselves.  But it is a rather magical feeling going to the shops and finding that everything you can imagine wanting and quite a bit of stuff you never even knew you wanted is piled up ready for you to take away.  As long you have deep enough pockets. Continue reading Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Consumerism

Is Climate Change the new Eugenics?

Writing in the Telegraph James Delingpole picks up on a throw away point made by Niall Ferguson in the episode about medicine in his series Civilization: Is the West History?   Ferguson pointed out that eugenics was widely believed at the turn of the twentieth century, but is now known to be nonsense and dangerous nonsense at that.  Ferguson points out that man made climate change is widely believed today.

There are a number of possible interpretations of this.  One is that Ferguson is simply drawing a comparison to show that eugenics was a mainstream belief accepted by a great many well respected people.  Or you could take it that Ferguson was pointing out that man made climate change is another widely held but wrong idea, possibly an equally dangerous one.

But I hold to a third way of looking at it.  Ferguson is a mischief maker who deliberately dropped in a controversial point.  He artfully made it ambiguous enough to wind people up across the spectrum.  When someone is trying to wind you up, don’t be wound up strikes me as the best response.  Continue reading Is Climate Change the new Eugenics?

History of the World by H.G.Wells and a challenge to Niall Ferguson

H.G.Wells – thanks to Wikipedia for the image

When I was very young, 12 or 13 maybe, I acquired a paperback of  H.G.Wells’ History of the World.  I probably bought it at a jumble sale but I may have just found it left on a train.  It remains the only book which having read, I instantly went back to the first page and read it again.  I think my interest in history dates from reading this book.

It is really well written and is a gripping read.  It whizzes through the entire history of the world starting with the formation of the planet itself and skipping deftly through geological time before ramping its way through ancient, medieval history and on to the present day.  The pace gets increasingly breathless as we approach the modern age.  I think it is about 200 pages in all if that.

There is a big debate in history about whether the emphasis should be on the great men and big deeds of individuals, or in teasing out the fundamental forces behind what is happening.  Are there underlying patterns that the events conform to?  Or is history made by the strength of will of particular individuals?

Wells was either unaware of this debate or reckless of it.  He just tells the story.  If a trend or a technological development catches his eye, he describes it.  If he comes across an interesting character, we get their story.  The two that have stuck in my mind in all the years since I read the book are King Asoka of India and Frederick Stupor Mundi, the astonishing Holy Roman Emperor.

He also takes a lot of interest in the difference between the aryans and the semites.  He manages to avoid doing this in a way that is anti-semitic – but the amount of attention given to it does come across strangely and a bit creepy.  

The book ends rather suddenly in 1944 – this being when Wells was writing.  Fortunately the events he is describing were well enough known that most people would know what came next, so it wasn’t a cliff hanger.  I don’t know if he ever brought it up to date after the war.  (Thanks to Google I found this written in 1922 which is pretty close to it.  A Short History of the World by H.G.Wells.)

This book came to mind reading Niall Ferguson’s moan in today’s Guardian about the teaching of history.  Most of what he says doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.   History teaching may not be perfect today, but it was dismal in the past.  I used to read history text books for fun as a kid but the idea of actually studying it formally was made to seem horrific by the way it was taught in school.  What he describes in a tone more suitable to the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch than a serious bit of analysis sounded a lot more interesting than what I had served up to me when I was at school in the seventies.

But nonetheless, I do think that Ferguson does have one good point.   He complains that students nowadays are given a Smorgasbord of disconnected topics without seeing the overall arc of history.  This seems like a valid criticism – though when I was at school you could make exactly the same complaint.  For some reason the curriculum I happened to follow went from the Stone Age to the end of Roman Britain, then leaped to the Tudors.   I am still very hazy on the Middle Ages compared to the other eras.

What is needed is a simple well written book, no more than 300 pages and possibly even shorter, that does what Wells book does, just tells the story of how we got here in a compelling way.   What should this book cover?

It should begin with scientific theories of how the planet formed.  Science and history are’t really different things.  They both tell us about the world we live in.   It should cover evolution.  At the end of the days we are the products of evolution after all.  You could easily fill the first third of the book and only get to the emergence of homo sapiens.  Then go through the origin of the various civilisations that have existed and still exist.  Don’t ignore non-Western ones, but celebrate the West appropriately as the most successful one to date.  And above all, include the stories of individuals.  Kings, scientists, musicians, playwrights and merchants have all left their mark.  And we are all interested in people.  

The big thing is to make sure it reads well as a story.  H.G.Wells understood that instinctively as a master story teller.  Get the story right and everything else should fall into place.  In the Guardian, Ferguson complains that a lot of  history undergraduates don’t know who the British general at Waterloo was.   You wouldn’t forget that if you had an idea of the drama surrounding that particular day.  If there is indeed a core of key facts, dates and people that everyone should know it must be possible to get it all down in a readable form that will be very memorable.

Who should write such a book?  I can’t think of many people who could do a better job than Dr Ferguson himself.

Read the original whinge by Niall Ferguson here.

If you have any better suggestions for improving history education feel free to add a comment.