Niall Ferguson on Why We Study History (Ep. 128)

We don’t study the past for its own sake.

While the modern historical ethos can be obsessed with condescending to the past based on our current value system, Scottish-born historian Niall Ferguson has aimed to set himself apart with his willingness to examine the past in its own context. The result is some wildly unpopular opinions such as “The British Empire was good, actually” and several wildly popular books, such as his latest Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Listen to the full conversation

You can also watch a video of the conversation here.

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Niall Ferguson, who needs no introduction. Niall has a new book out, called Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Niall, welcome.

NIALL FERGUSON: It’s great to be with you, Tyler.

On pessimism across different cultures

COWEN: As a general cultural matter, how would you describe the difference between English pessimism and Scottish pessimism?

FERGUSON: Well, English pessimism doesn’t exist in the eyes of the Scots because the English always expect to win the World Cup in soccer. Therefore, we’re of the view that they have a hubristic optimism that it’s our role periodically to puncture, not nearly often enough. Scottish pessimism is different because the phrase “We’re doomed” only really works in a Scottish accent.

I think this is fundamentally the difference between Calvinists and Anglicans or Episcopalians. I grew up in the Calvinist West of Scotland, Glasgow and its environs. I think I had drummed into me a kind of pessimism that’s only alleviated by gallows humor. Scotland has the weather to go with the pessimism. It does rain a lot.

I remember when I first heard the song “The Sunny Side of the Street,” wondering where that was and realizing that Americans really do see things differently, partly because it’s sunnier.

When I went to Oxford, and I must have been 17, I was struck by the very different sensibility of the English who became my friends, that they’re definitely much less steeped in doom and gloom than I was.

COWEN: How does Welsh pessimism fit into this picture?

FERGUSON: Well, I’m a student of Welsh pessimism because I spend quite a bit of time in Wales. When I’m in the UK, I have a place here. I’ve come to realize, after nearly two decades of living and working in the United States, that the differences between the Celtic periphery countries — Scotland, Wales, and Ireland — are really small differences, as in narcissism of small differences.

We’re all fundamentally very alike and really should just be united under a new name, Not England. I don’t mind which Not England I’m in — it’s essentially the same. South Wales is like the West of Scotland. It was a center of the Industrial Revolution: coal mines, dilapidated steelworks. The pubs feel the same. The conversations are similar, and there isn’t this preoccupation with embarrassment and class, which are the things that make England slightly unbearable after a while.

I like coming to Wales, but Wales is Scotland lite. They are undoubtedly less morose, although they certainly like to drown their sorrows. I think of Wales — although this will annoy any Welsh people listening — as Scotland lite. It’s the diet version. It’s the same, but it’s just not so strong. That’s perhaps why I enjoy being here. There are times when I go back to Scotland and a kind of claustrophobic feeling seizes me.

The other good thing about the Welsh is that they don’t take their nationalism too seriously. Nobody really thinks they’ll ever be an independent Wales. Not really. Not seriously. Whereas, unfortunately, a significant proportion of my countrymen in Scotland seem to believe that there could be a People’s Republic of Scotland, a terrible idea in my view.

COWEN: Now, I don’t actually read you as such a pessimist, but if you just were to ask yourself, at the intellectual level, who has made the most convincing, persuasive case for British pessimism, is it James Fitzjames Stephen? Is it John Gray? Is it Coleridge? Who is it?


COWEN: Marx. Why? Even today?

FERGUSON: Marx’s vision of the Industrial Revolution was really inspired by observations or at least reading about the British Isles and the Industrial Revolution, even if he wasn’t exactly doing fieldwork. Because the English really are obsessed with class, you can understand why spending a lot of time in London would give you the idea that class was the key to history and that, ultimately, some terrible eruption of class conflict would signal the death knell of capitalism.

I think if one reads [Das] Kapital, it is a prophetic work about England and about any country that follows England down the route of Industrial Revolution and class society. I can’t think of any more — you could say [William] Blake— but I can’t think of any more influential pessimistic view of history than Marx’s and it was hatched in England.

COWEN: Persuasive to you. I half expected you would say John le Carré — the notion that this deadeningly dull bureaucracy is our sad future.

FERGUSON: Yeah, I think that’s probably closer to my reads, although I don’t associate the problems of bureaucracy with England particularly. It seems to me that the modern bureaucratic state is really a German idea. The Germans idealized it. Maybe I should say the Prussians, although by the time Max Weber was writing about bureaucracy, it was really German.

I think we, in the English-speaking world, imported an idea of bureaucracy from the Germans in the same way that we imported the PhD and all the bad things about academic life from the Germans. When bureaucracy came to Britain — which it did, I think, rather later than it came to Germany — it almost immediately became an object of mockery.

The funniest thing ever written about bureaucracy is the sitcom Yes, Minister. I don’t see that as the distinctively English or British pathology, though it’s become a general pathology of the Western democratic world, certainly in the last 50 years.

On James Bond

COWEN: Is James Bond a Scottish prophet of doom?

FERGUSON: It’s interesting that Bond was played by a Scottish actor, Sean Connery, but Bond was also conceived of by Ian Fleming in a way that, if you read the original novels, implies at least a streak of Scottishness. I was raised on Bond. I think Sean Connery was our hero because I remember explaining this to Sean Connery when I met him for the first time.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience of being introduced to a famous person. It’s very uncomfortable. At least I felt embarrassed because I was on the doorstep of his house in Lyford Cay. I had been taken to this house without any warning that it was Sean Connery’s house — it was quite a modest bungalow by a golf course — by a well-meaning friend who thought I should meet the most famous of all Scotsmen.

We knocked on the door, and the door was opened by Sean Connery, obviously in the middle of his lunch, wearing only a sarong. I couldn’t think what to say to him. After the earth refused to swallow me up, I mumbled, “It’s a great honor to meet you, Mr. Connery. I think I learned everything about how to be a man from watching you in the cinema in Glasgow in the 1970s.”

Connery looks at me and raises his eyebrow and said, “Oh, that’s strange. Don’t you know I’m a homosexual?” That was such a great comeback line that it broke the ice. I replied, “Is that why you’re wearing a skirt?” We went from there.

Connery’s Bond had a big influence on me. I make all my children watch those movies. But what’s the point of the story line? The story line is, it’s like World War II. Britain’s clearly second fiddle to the United States — as much as it was in the Second World War — in the Cold War.

But we’ve got something the Americans aren’t so good at, which is intelligence. It’s spies, and that’s really the plot line. I realized that all the heroes that I grew up with were heroes born of that British sense that we definitely didn’t have the brawn, but we might still have the brains.

Doctor Who was my favorite science fictional character when I was a boy. Doctor Who’s the only superhero who uses his brain, not his muscles. All American superheroes are bodybuilders. Doctor Who doesn’t have a muscle in his body. I think that’s the point of both of those characters — that you’re trying to compensate for your dwindling economic muscle with superior brains.

It was unfortunate that it turned out that, in fact, our intelligence network could be much more successfully penetrated by the KGB than the US network, but we blame that on Cambridge where I come from.

COWEN: Does the philosophy of history in Bond movies embody too much extreme contingency, just the right amount, or not enough? Because if the villain would just kill James Bond and dispense with the unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism, the villain would then go on to destroy or rule the world.

FERGUSON: [mimicking the characters] “You don’t expect me to talk, do you, Goldfinger?” “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.” But how is he going to die? An incredibly slow-moving laser is going finally to reach his private parts and slice him in two, but it’s just too slow. Yes, I think even as a child, I recognized that there was something implausible about Sean Connery’s un-killability. This is amusingly mocked in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers films.

But the plot twists — if you think back to the early Fleming novels and the early movies — the plot twists that matter are rather relevant to our own time because the people who are the villains are not clearly direct employees of the Soviet Union, of the Russians. They’re semi-freelancing organized criminals, whether it’s Dr. No or Goldfinger. That’s actually quite appropriate in our time because that’s how cyber warfare is waged.

Criminal gangs who are semi-officially working with the Kremlin are already quite a major threat to our political and economic stability. I hope that somewhere out there, there is a 007-like figure who bumps off the ringleaders of the Moldovan hacking or malware organization that’s behind the Colonial Pipeline attack.

Actually, this makes Bond feel quite relevant, and the plot twists are absurd, of course. Fleming was a bit like John Buchan. These books are the direct lineal descendants, as you probably know, Tyler, of the great Richard Hannay books that John Buchan wrote, beginning with The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a tradition, I think, that can be traced all the way back to the period before the First World War.

You read these books, I think, with a certain suspension of disbelief because the authors are signaling to you that there’s something slightly camp going on here, that it’s not to be taken too seriously. Buchan regarded the Hannay novels as ripping yarns. I think he called them shockers. He would refer to them as shockers.

Fleming was equally disdainful, really, of the Bond novels, but they capture a truth about the Cold War, the Bond novels. That is the Cold War isn’t actually cold. It involves quite a lot of violence, just small-scale, precision violence rather than the large-scale violence of world war.

COWEN: Here’s a very simple question. What is the nature of the epistemic crisis faced by modernity at its most fundamental level? Why are we screwed up? Nothing proximate. Something ultimate or fundamental.

FERGUSON: I think the problem is that we are haunted by doomsday scenarios because they’re seared in our subconscious by religion, even though we think we’re very secular. We have this hunch that the end is nigh. The world is going to end in 12 years, or no, it must be 10. So I think part of the problem of modernity is that we’re still haunted by the end time.

We also have the nasty suspicion — this is there in Nick Bostrom’s work — that we’ve created a whole bunch of technologies that have actually increased the probability rather than reduced the probability of an extinction-level event. On the other hand, we’re told that there’s a singularity in prospect when all the technologies will come together to produce superhuman beings with massively extended lifespans and the added advantage of artificial general intelligence.

The epistemic problem, as I see it is — Ian Morris wrote this in one of his recent books— which is the scenario? Extinction-level events or the singularity? That seems a tremendously widely divergent set of scenarios to choose from. I sense that — perhaps this is just the historian’s instinct — that each of these scenarios is, in fact, a very low probability indeed, and that we should spend more time thinking about the more likely scenarios that lie between them.

Your essay, which I was prompted to read before our conversation, about the epistemic problem and consequentialism set me thinking about work I’d done on counterfactual history, for which I would have benefited from reading that essay sooner.

I think that if you ask what are the counterfactuals of the future, we spend too much time thinking about the quite unlikely scenarios of the end of the world through climate change or some other calamity of the sort that Bostrom talks about, or some extraordinary leap forward. I can’t help feeling that these are — not that we can attach probabilities; they lie in the realm of uncertainty — but they don’t seem likely scenarios to me.

I think we’ll end up with something that’s rather more mundane, and perhaps a relief if we’re really serious about the end of the world, or perhaps a disappointment if we’re serious about the singularity.

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the Enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

COWEN: Why did Scott — speaking of Scott — write a nine-volume biography of Napoleon? It’s almost a million words. It’s quite pro-Napoleon. He was fairly well paid as a novelist. Wasn’t he too Tory or too authoritarian in some sense?

FERGUSON: What’s striking to me about Scott — and I haven’t read the Napoleon biography — is, apart from the extraordinarily superhuman prolific capacities, is the ambivalence about the romantic. He’s like a one-man combination of Johnson and Boswell because he’s — at one and the same time — attracted by the romance of the Jacobites and the romance of revolutionaries, too, but he’s also conscious that, really, you’re better off with the sober bourgeois existence that’s on offer in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

That ambivalence, I think, is absolutely central to the culture that I come from. If you ask the question, where does Jekyll and Hyde come from? Why does [Robert Louis] Stevenson — who’s really the heir of Scott — why does Stevenson constantly explore split personalities or fraternal feuds? Read The Master of Ballantrae. Because it gets at this fundamental tension between the romantic, the Tory, the Catholic on the one side and the rationalist, Whig Protestant on the other side.

You know that there’s something unattractive about the hard-nosed Protestant types. On the other hand, if you entrust your country to romanticism, it’s probably going to revert to Afghanistan.

I don’t think a Stuart restoration should have gone very well. I think there’s good reason to be skeptical about that. Jonathan Clark wrote a fantastic essay — almost my favorite essay in the book, Virtual History — imagining lots of different counterfactuals and contingencies of British history. It’s one of the best reflections on the various counterfactuals of the 17th and 18th century, including the counterfactual that you somehow avoid the American Revolution.

It’s a great piece of writing. He’s a great historian. He’s one of the great historians of our generation, who — because he was a conservative — was essentially driven into a kind of academic exile.

COWEN: If you look at the broader history of historicism, and you look at the Germans or Scott, there seems to be this odd connection between historicism as a mode of thinking and excessive preoccupation with leadership — Carlyle also. Where does that come from, that connection? And is that a danger or is it a virtue?

FERGUSON: Well, I’m not sure it’s unique to the historicist. After all, Hegel has his moments of idolizing Napoleon, doesn’t he?

The historicists ultimately produced in Meinecke somebody who transcends great men. I think one has to look at it partly from the vantage points of 19th-century publishing. If you think about how history evolves as a discipline, it’s partly propelled by the publishers in the 19th century, and they did like biographies. They knew what we know now — biographies sell, so there was an incentive to write biographies.

When Meinecke sought to break free of that — and I think Meinecke is, in many ways, one of the most important and profound historical thinkers — it’s probably not that commercially successful.

But you’re asking questions now about the philosophy of history, a subject that is largely lost these days. Most historians are remarkably indifferent to the philosophy of history. I think it’s a great loss that we no longer really ask these questions. We no longer read Meinecke. “Causality and Values” is one of Meinecke’s great essays. It should be required reading for history undergraduates, but I bet you it isn’t assigned anywhere in the United States today.

On philosophy of history

COWEN: Who is the most profound philosopher of history?

FERGUSON: [R. G.] Collingwood.


FERGUSON: Because Collingwood brilliantly captured what it is that historians are engaged in doing and put it better than anybody I’ve read. He was part-time archaeologist, part-time philosopher of history, a very Oxford kind of person.

Collingwood says that the historical — and here I’ll paraphrase rather than try to quote from memory — the historical act is essentially one of reconstitution of past thought, that you are reconstituting past thought from such relics of thought survive. Then you’re juxtaposing that past thought with your own thought, the thought of your own time — in order to be informed by it, you’re not studying it for its own sake; you’re interested in its implications, in the light that it sheds on your own predicament. This is put best in his autobiography, another thing that should be required reading, which he published in 1939.

When I discovered it — which was only after I’d crossed the Atlantic and started teaching at Harvard — it was a kind of sudden illumination. That’s exactly the kind of approach to history that I favor because, as Collingwood says, we’re doing this for a purpose, which is to understand our own predicament better by that juxtaposition of past and present thought.

COWEN: On philosophy of history, what did you take from A. J. P. Taylor?

FERGUSON: “Men only learn from history how to make new mistakes.” That’s one of Taylor’s many throwaway lines. Taylor was my hero when I was a schoolboy. I applied to Magdalen College, Oxford because I thought he was a fellow there. He had been, but I was young, we didn’t have the internet, and I hadn’t realized that he’d stopped being a fellow there some years before I turned up.

I read Taylor as a schoolboy, beginning with the Illustrated History of the First World War, which is a potboiler, really, but it’s just full of fantastic writing. Taylor was as good a prose stylist as George Orwell. We should really put them in the same league when it comes to improving the way we write English.

Taylor loved the paradox. He loved to be the contrarian. His Origins of the Second World War is still a masterpiece of polemical writing. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe is just a tour de force that transformed my thinking about 19th-century history, but it’s just brilliant writing.

I also remember a great Taylor line about historical sensibility being a little bit like a musical sensibility. Taylor understood that one was really engaged in something closer to music than science, and I think that’s right.

He was a very scrupulous diplomatic historian of the old school. Taylor really did believe in the Rankean principle that you plowed through the documents and tried to construct the sequence of events that way. He’s fantastically scathing in his review of Kissinger’s first book, a review that I only found by chance — this is A World Restored, a book that has many merits, but Taylor despised it because of its flourishes and the fact that they’re not really anchored in the documents.

COWEN: From a philosophy-of-history point of view, where do you think Taylor’s Second World War book went wrong? Hitler is too much of a bumbler, right? What happened there?

FERGUSON: I think the contrarian impulse is a very strong one, and it’s a part of the British academic tradition. What Taylor wanted to do was to turn everyone on their head, including people he loathed like Hugh Trevor-Roper, his successful rival for the Regius Chair at Oxford, so there was a personal element to that.

At the same time, I think Taylor’s method — because it strictly adhered to the diplomatic documents — led him to the very appealing conclusion that Hitler was just a traditional German statesman, and the war was a kind of accident, mainly due to misunderstandings. I think that’s really as much about the nature of the source material as it is about Taylor’s love of paradox and contrarian thinking.

Actually, Taylor’s account of the events of 1938–’39 is quite good. There’s much in it that’s right, but what’s missing is that which you would only find from looking at what Hitler was saying in other contexts. I think Taylor knowingly underplayed Hitler’s ideological motivations because he was pursuing that contrarian argument and had the material to pull it off. But you have to ignore the diabolical and ultimately catastrophic impulses that were Hitler’s primary motivations.

I think the antidote to a book like Taylor’s is Michael Burleigh’s excellent book of, gosh, more than a decade ago, The Third Reich: A New History, which emphasizes Hitler’s messianic political-religious side. You can’t really explain why Hitler is able to overcome the anxieties of Germans in 1938 and initiate a war in 1939 — after all, Germans had as terrible memories of World War I as anybody did — you can’t understand how he’s able to deliver the mobilization of ’39 unless you recognize that there’s something more than just traditional realpolitik going on here.

I think Burleigh, better than most English-speaking historians, captures the political-religious quality of national socialism, the sense that some national redemption is taking place, that Hitler is the redeemer.

Most of the English-language biographies that people read — like Ian Kershaw’s or Alan Bullock’s or Richard Evans’s very boring books — fail to capture the diabolical appeal that Hitler had and make him sound almost, in Ian Kershaw’s account, like a negligent colleague at a provincial university. Only Michael Burleigh really gets that Hitler has this terrifying star quality that leads Germans into the abyss again. It’s the second time they’re going into that abyss. That’s what’s missing from Taylor.

COWEN: What have you learned from Quentin Skinner about history?

FERGUSON: How to be patronized?

COWEN: How so?

FERGUSON: Quentin once said to me, when I was a very young fellow at Christ’s College, that in the great chain of being, intellectual history was at the top and economic history was at the bottom, the bottom feeders. That was the kind of thing that you could say in Cambridge in the early 1990s at high table to put some young upstart in his place.

But Quinton’s a brilliant man, and I think he had a huge, an ultimately admirable influence on the way that Cambridge did political thought because he insisted on contextualizing the documents and insisted that we don’t read texts as if they are handed to us on stone tablets, that one has to understand Italian ideas of republicanism by delving deeply into the contexts in which someone like Machiavelli worked. So I admire Quentin as a scholar, even if he was crushing when I was a young hopeful.

COWEN: Under constitutional monarchies, do you prefer kings or queens?

FERGUSON: I have no preference.

COWEN: Aren’t queens better? They’re less likely to do wrong and get themselves into trouble?

FERGUSON: We had Mary, Queen of Scots, who got herself in more trouble than pretty much any monarch I can think of. I don’t think the sample size is large enough. If you look at monarchs — I did this a while back, found a good paper and worked on the data on how monarchs end. They do come to a lot of sticky ends, the women as well as the men, if you do a large enough sample size and look at not just the English kings and queens.

I’ve always been a bit allergic to kings and queens as a subject of study because that’s what historians in England are supposed to do. If it’s not got Henry VIII in it, you’re going to struggle for an audience.

I’ve studiously avoided writing about monarchs. I once tried to write a book about the royal families, plural, after I’d done the Rothschild book, which is probably my best book. I wanted to do a similar book about the dynasty, the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty. This was the German family who somehow became the rulers of most European countries by the later 19th century. They were all related.

I went to considerable lengths to prepare that book, which, of course, Queen Victoria was a big part of because she was the matriarch of the Saxe-Coburgs. The problem with the project was that their letters were so much more boring than the Rothschild letters. I would just fall asleep in the royal archives at Windsor. I gathered an enormous amount of material. I drew a wonderful family tree, which I still have, a genealogy of European royalty, which I have outside my office at Hoover, showing that it’s really one family.

They just happened to have nearly all the thrones of Europe by 1900. But the letters — they were just full of gossip and hunting stories. I just got on so much better with the Rothschild correspondence. I realized that I didn’t have a great affinity with royal history and steered clear of it for most of my career. It’s probably why I ended up in the United States because American readers are more interested or ready to read about bankers than British readers, who do like kings and queens.

On Northern Ireland

COWEN: What’s going to happen in Northern Ireland? And how do you, as a Scot, maybe understand that situation differently?

FERGUSON: In order to become prime minister, Boris Johnson — who is the Disraeli of our time, not the Churchill — realized that he had to agree to something that was completely unworkable, the Northern Ireland Protocol. For listeners, viewers uninterested in all this, I’ll try to keep it simple. Ultimately, if you took the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — which is the full name of this country where I currently sit — out of the European Union, you have to have a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That’s not something that the Good Friday Agreement smiles upon.

You had to kind of agree not to do that. That implied, of course, that you’d have your customs border in the Irish Sea and that Northern Ireland would functionally be treated in the same way as the rest of Ireland, as the Republic of Ireland, in trade at least. This, of course, when you think about it for a split second, is a terrible blow to Unionism in Ulster, Northern Ireland, and a great win for the proponents of Irish reunification.

But Boris doesn’t care about that. Like most people who’ve grown up in English politics, he has only the haziest notions about Northern Ireland. From his point of view, the goal was to get to the top of the greasy pole. If that meant agreeing to something unworkable, then so be it. That worked out well for him, and it continues to work well because Brexit is not an end state. It’s an ongoing, probably interminable, process, which helps the conservatives in England, particularly with the working class.

What happens in Northern Ireland? Well, I was told just the other day that the Troubles would return because of these issues. I think that’s bluff. I don’t think there really are that many people north or south of the Irish border who want to go back to the bad old days. I think there’s a lot of bluff there, and the media like to hype it up, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the Troubles over this issue.

COWEN: Fifty years from now, will there be one Ireland?


COWEN: Betting odds?

FERGUSON: If you ask English voters that question, they’re like, “Oh, maybe. Who cares?” You ask them the same question about an independent Scotland. They’re like, “Sure.” The thing that’s important is that the English don’t care about this stuff anymore, and they used to care. They just don’t care anymore. I think that indifference is the more powerful force. If you ask younger people in Northern Ireland, they care less than older people about Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. So, 50 years? It’s possible.

I think the key thing to remember is, what you get from doing history over long time scales is that there’s a shape-shifting quality to this thing we call the United Kingdom. It’s only been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for about a hundred years. Before that, Ireland was united, but united as part of the United Kingdom. You don’t have to go too far back — only go back to the early 19th century. You encounter a pre-Union arrangement in which Ireland is notionally a separate entity.

Go back to 1707 — that’s when Scotland’s parliament’s united with England. It seems to me perfectly possible that it could shift again, perhaps after my lifetime but in my children’s lifetime.

Previously, you asked me how I feel about this. I was a Scottish nationalist at the age of 15, prepared to punch people on the nose over the issue. I think once you grow out of that kind of thing — by the time I’d got to Oxford, I’d become a young Thatcherite, a kind of punk Tory.

The more I reflected on it as a historian, the more I could see that Scotland had a great deal out of the Union. It was entirely to the advantage of people like me that Scotland was a part of a greater political unit. Johnson was right about the finest sight a Scotsman sees: the high road to London. All that persuaded me, and I’ve been a proponent of the Union ever since.

But having fought the battle over 2014 when the referendum on independence occurred last, I’m a little bit despondent at the thought of having to make all those arguments again. Maybe in the end, you just have to treat it like the Quebec issue and try to call the nationalists’ bluff because I don’t really think there’s that profound a sentiment in favor of nationalism.

The SNP keeps this going with a mixture of anti-English sentiment and trying to distract attention from its own failures because they basically do run Scotland. Devolution has given them all the power that matters. These issues are so parochial that it’s hard for me to get excited about them anymore. I would now say, “Well, okay, try independence and see how you like it. You think you’re going to be a Scandinavian country, but you’ll turn out to be a Balkan country, and serve you right.”

On this or that

COWEN: Do you prefer Boswell or Johnson?

FERGUSON: I, of course, prefer Boswell, but that’s because I identify more with Boswell. I sometimes feel I’m Kissinger’s Boswell, trotting along, writing down the aphorisms and making the weaker arguments. But Johnson has the better lines, and Boswell deserves the credit for giving him the better lines.

COWEN: Alasdair Gray or Irvine Welsh?

FERGUSON: Alasdair Gray.


FERGUSON: Better writer. Lanark is a great book.

COWEN: John Lennon or Paul McCartney?

FERGUSON: John Lennon. I cried when he died. All the great songs are by Lennon. I hero-worshipped Lennon as a boy. I discovered music by a curious dual track. I came from an unmusical family. My parents were not interested in music, and punk rock began my liberation from an unmusical life.

I’d hated all that progressive stuff that people listened to. Pink Floyd sent me into a coma. Punk rock was great, but then I was able to rediscover the roots of British popular music, and that included the Beatles. But with all due respect to Macca [McCartney], who’s a lovely man, and whose birthday I believe it is or has just been . . .

COWEN: Yes, it is today [June 18th].

FERGUSON: You know, Paul, that John wrote the more powerful songs and had the more powerful voice.

COWEN: What is the best American punk rock band?

FERGUSON: There isn’t one.

COWEN: Not the Replacements? Not the Dead Kennedys?

FERGUSON: None of them. Punk was British.

COWEN: Ramones?

FERGUSON: The Dead Kennedys — yeah, you know, B+.

COWEN: What’s the best XTC song?

FERGUSON: I never liked them much.

COWEN: But you named a book after an XTC song, right? Paper and Iron. That’s your first book.

FERGUSON: It definitely wasn’t inspired by XTC — that title.

COWEN: They were British punk rockers at the beginning, at least.

FERGUSON: Yeah, it’s funny. I used to listen to John Peel, and that was my musical education. This was a wonderful radio show. The late John Peel who, at ten o’clock every night, from ten to midnight would play the latest punk, the latest reggae. I think XTC was a band he played, but they were never one of my favorites.

After the Sex Pistols, I was a Jam fan, a Clash fan, a Damned fan, Buzzcocks. Those were the bands that really moved me. I recovered my memory of the Adverts the other day because I was thinking how terrible COVID has been for teenagers. I suddenly remembered the Adverts, “Bored Teenagers,” a really good song that I hadn’t heard for years.

Punk was a wonderful eruption of a distinctly British popular culture. That’s why no American bands could ever quite get it right.

COWEN: What’s your favorite bridge in Glasgow?

FERGUSON: There’s a bridge over the River Kelvin near the school where I went, Glasgow Academy, which might be boringly called the Kelvin Bridge. I forget its name, but it’s a lovely spot. Glasgow’s a rather beautiful city. You might be surprised to hear me say that, but the area around the university and the place where my school was has the River Kelvin. That bridge is one that I associate with, yes, walking to and from school in all weathers.

COWEN: It’s such a great tragedy that the Macintosh Library burned down.

FERGUSON: Yes, libraries are really a crucial part of my life because, without the public libraries, I would not have been able to read as much as I did as a kid. If I hadn’t been sent to the Mitchell Library as a schoolboy, I wouldn’t have understood that history was this unmanageable quantity of data. I remember seeing the shelf of books about the Thirty Years’ War. I’d been asked to write an essay on the Thirty Years’ War. I went to the Mitchell Library, and there were all the books on the Thirty Years’ War. And it hit me, “Oh my God, there are just hundreds of them.”

That was when the challenge of history suddenly gripped me, that there was this vast, almost unmanageable body of literature to read on any topic. So, libraries, yes. Libraries are better than Google. Very important because libraries sort the material in a way that is honest, and Google sorts it in a way that’s designed to sell ads to you.

I think libraries — they are sacred places. Isn’t it funny? Think back: The way that print evolved as a technology produced an enormous amount of content that was not selling ads, and libraries ended up as the organizing institutions of information with a system of cataloging that wasn’t designed to do anything other than get you to associate the book you were reading with the other books that were related to it. I think library cataloging systems are a much-underrated contribution to our civilization.

COWEN: If we look back at the great thinkers of the past and ask ourselves who produced the strongest defense of liberalism — liberalism in the broad sense of that word — it could be John Stuart Mill or Hayek or Burke or Tocqueville. For you personally, who is it?

FERGUSON: Tocqueville —


FERGUSON: — has always resonated with me much more than Mill, and more than Hayek too. I think that’s partly an Oxford story. As an undergraduate, we were required to read Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime in French in our first term. My French wasn’t that good, so it was quite hard work, but the conversations about that book that I remember having — not only with my tutor, Angus Macintyre, but with my near-contemporary, Andrew Sullivan — were very seminal.

The realization that Tocqueville’s idea of liberty is something that has to be protected by nonobvious means, by things that you might not, as a liberal, even approve of — that’s a fascinating insight. Then, when we read Democracy in America, it became even clearer what Tocqueville’s project was, which was to show why France had failed to be or could not be the United States, and why American liberty had a very distinctive set of institutional supports.

I think what I like about Tocqueville is that it’s a historical method that he uses. I’m a philosophical ignoramus. I can’t get past first base with abstract arguments. I need to be told a story, and Tocqueville’s story of what had gone wrong in 18th-century France, which makes a lot more sense when you read his account of what’s gone right in 19th-century America — that just clicked with me.

COWEN: I sometimes think of your implicit view of liberalism as a lot like that of Keynes. The history of Britain is the history of the British Empire. Keynes starts out working on India. It’s the quality of the British elite that matters most of all. When things go wrong, it’s a moral failure of that elite. He was not very directly philosophical, but he had plenty to say about history, political agreements, treaties, economic movements. Does that resonate with you? Or how do you feel when you read Keynes?



FERGUSON: I was interested in economics, and because I’d been educated in Scotland and was more numerate than my English contemporaries, I gravitated towards economic history. There were options at Oxford that included economic and social thought instead of political thought.

While everybody else was reading Aristotle and Locke, I was reading Adam Smith and then The General Theory, and The General Theory was the hardest thing I’d ever read, and I read it from cover to cover, taking notes three times in an attempt to understand it. Probably strikes you as a crazy way to learn economics, but it was Oxford, and that was how it worked.

COWEN: That’s how I learned that book. I read it multiple times in a row and took a lot of notes.

FERGUSON: Yes, and you have to do that because it’s a difficult book. It’s actually the hardest of his books to read. Earlier works are much more straightforward. Anyway, that began my strange, ongoing, lifelong fascination with Keynes.

The reason I’m in some ways out of sympathy with Keynes is that his Bloomsbury background, his Bloomsbury network made him so iconoclastic, so determined to tear down all that the Victorians had built that, ultimately, he ended up clearing a path for a failed socialist experiment. Not that Keynes himself was a socialist, but his tearing down of the Victorian verities — of the gold standard, of free trade, of the importance of posterity, all of those things — did not create a viable basis for liberalism, but just opened the path to Labour dominance and a period of stagnation in the period after Keynes’s death.

But you can’t read Keynes without admiring the intellect and the man. Skidelsky’s brilliant three-volume biography— which is a model of how to write a biography of an economist — is a wonderful work, not least because of the conclusion that by the end, Keynes was not a Keynesian, or at least regarded the people who called themselves Keynesians with great skepticism.

I got into an argument with the early Keynes in my very earliest book, the book Paper and Iron, because I encountered Keynes in a new role, which wasn’t well known, and that was his role as an adviser to the Weimar government during the reparations negotiations.

That informal role that Keynes played from the Versailles peace negotiations right through to the complete collapse of the currency is a fascinating chapter in his life. It doesn’t, I think, look so good as some of Keynes’s more famous contributions because I don’t think he gave the Germans great advice. When the whole thing ended in catastrophe in 1923, Keynes distanced himself from it and certainly didn’t acknowledge his curious part in that episode.

COWEN: Is Keynes too much of an aesthetic thinker for you? If you think about the ties to Bloomsbury — he was an art collector. He helped resuscitate the theater at Cambridge. An early infatuation with Moore. Is that where you and he intellectually part company at a fundamental level?

FERGUSON: No, I’m a dreadful aesthete, perhaps of a lower caliber than Keynes, but I have my own Bloomsbury. I have a network of artists and musicians that dates back to Oxford days. I’m never happier than when diverting myself with music or art. I’m more Bloomsbury than you might think.

My parting of the ways with Keynes is, as I said, that the impulse of Bloomsbury was to despise the Victorians. Strachey was more open about this because Eminent Victorians is just a hatchet job on all the icons of the 19th century, but Keynes more subtly dismantles the Victorian achievement, and I’m more sympathetic to that achievement.

The redeeming feature of Keynes’s life I think is the heroic effort he made to keep Britain from going under in World War II. Skidelsky’s third volume is a terrific account of that very difficult fight that Keynes had to fight to prevent Roosevelt and his advisers dismantling the British Empire there and then, which they were in a strong enough position to do. It took a lot of intellectual effort to keep Britain in the game in 1945.

COWEN: What do you think is the empirical or historical view that you hold — and maybe others do not — that makes you so much less anti-Victorian than Keynes or many, many others, including the woke of today?

FERGUSON: Well, my heretical position — and it’s been my view for at least 20 years — is that the benefits of the British Empire outweighed the costs. If one does a cost-benefit analysis of British imperialism, one comes to the conclusion — if one is in any way rigorous about it — that it was a remarkably benign empire compared with other available empires.

And the counterfactual is crucial here because those people on the left who make a living out of comparing the empire to the Third Reich are just not being rigorous. They’re committing category errors, and more importantly, they’re not positing realistic counterfactuals.

Empire is a book that you couldn’t write today. I don’t think you could publish that book today. Certainly, if you tried to, you’d encounter all kinds of pushback. Bruce Gilley’s article that got unpublished basically makes the argument of that book. My only regret when I read Gilley’s article was that he didn’t cite it.

The basic argument of Empire is an economic one. It is that if you think about what the empire became in the 19th century, it became an empire of liberalism, an empire of free trade, an empire of free migration, of free capital movement. It was also an empire that turned away from slavery before others did. So the argument of the book was that, compared with the available alternatives, including indigenous empires — because that was the alternative — the British Empire was a very positive force in the 19th and even more positive force in the 20th century.

This is a deeply unfashionable view. It has made me a hate figure for the academic left because, in the last 20 years, it has become mandatory to regard imperialism as an unmitigated evil, to dismiss economic cost-benefit arguments, to ignore counterfactual rigor, and just to engage in a massive act of condescension to the past, and this is the opposite of what Collingwood had in mind.

Collingwood’s idea was that we should reconstruct past thought faithfully and juxtapose it. The modern historical ethos is to go back with our value system and condescend to the past and regard it as a blinding insight of scholarship that people in the past were racists or, for that matter, sexists.

COWEN: I can see that the British Empire was much better for Singapore, much better for Hong Kong, at least after some point, better for places like Barbados. But if I look at India — post-independence India, even with very poor economic policy — it seems to have higher economic growth rates than it did under empire. It seems that under empire, just very, very little was invested in public-goods provision.

FERGUSON: Well, a lot more than would have been. Tirthankar Roy wrote the best book on this. Roy shows that, actually, there was really quite large-scale investment in infrastructure. We all love the word infrastructure these days. Well, the British Empire was all about infrastructure, and there’s vastly more railroad and telegraph and dock construction than in Qing China. Oriental empires invest far less in infrastructure than the British Empire did. Any plausible counterfactual of Indian history can’t be that the policies of the 1990s magically happened in the 1890s.

The question is what was going on in comparable geographies in the 1890s. Roy’s book is very interesting because the great defects of British investment was that they invested nothing really in primary education. They invested in the elites’ education because they wanted to train a native Indian elite that would help them run the empire, but there was a really serious shortfall in investment in basic education.

That’s clearly one of the reasons that India remains so poor, but remember, India’s relative per capita GDP doesn’t begin to close the gap with Britain until quite recently. The first decades of independence were not characterized by very rapid growth.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, what is, to you, the most plausible dystopia in science fiction?

FERGUSON: The most plausible is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Stephenson saw, really brilliantly, that we would end up spending half our lives on the internet and that our avatars would start having more fun than us. It’s that juxtaposition of breaking down California in which people are online half the time and great flotillas of illegal migrants that I love about Snow Crash. Brilliant book.

COWEN: Actually, two more questions I want to ask now. First, your recent trip to Mexico City — what did you learn there?

FERGUSON: Well, my motivation was not really to learn much. I went to see my daughter, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly 18 months. I learned she was fine.

COWEN: But you can’t help but learn, and often you learn more when your motivation is not to learn, right?

FERGUSON: I learned that the populism of the left might get rewarded much more than the populism of the right in Latin America because, despite pretty bad excess mortality, Mexico’s going to recover quite rapidly on the coattails of the United States. Whereas Brazil is going to continue having a torrid time, for which Bolsonaro will be roundly blamed. I was impressed actually by how okay things seemed in Mexico City, not that it’s representative of the wider country, but I’d expected it to be a more downhearted place than I encountered.

COWEN: Last question: other than finishing the second volume of your Kissinger biography, what else do you have planned for the future in terms of work?

FERGUSON: I don’t want to write any more books after the second volume of the Kissinger biography because I think that that will be quite enough, 17, and I’m not sure that anybody really reads books anymore, at least not all the way through.

COWEN: I read them.

FERGUSON: Yes, but we’re a dwindling number, Tyler, a dwindling number. I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s a fool’s errand to try to change people’s minds with 400- or 500-page volumes.

I want to write the Kissinger book because I think there’s a lot to be learned from the 1970s, and I’ve gathered some amazing material that nobody’s looked at before because most books about the 1970s just use American sources or a few foreign sources, but I’ve been looking at the Central Committee transcripts, and they’re great. That’s a book worth writing, and it will illuminate the US-China relationship in a fresh way.

After that, I think it’s time to move on. The most important thing to do — I’m now 57; if you can count on maybe a couple more decades, let’s assume I live as long as my dad — the most important thing you can do in that remaining part of your life must be intellectual succession and planning.

I don’t see a whole lot of intellectual succession. Academic life, in my view, has gone off the rails in ways that I never would have imagined in the 1980s when I was starting out. We need new institutions, urgently need new institutions, and I want to spend more time on institution building and less time on book writing in whatever time is left to me, and that should strike terror in my enemies’ hearts.

COWEN: Niall Ferguson, thank you very much. Again, I’m happy to recommend Niall’s latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

FERGUSON: Thank you, Tyler.

Thumbnail photo credit: Zoe Law