It’s like being naked in the street

Niall Ferguson is the lastest historian to strike it rich on television. So why, asks Cassandra Jardine, is he so afraid of poverty? 

On the night that the first of his programmes on Empire was broadcast, Niall Ferguson was in a terrible state. "Presenting your own television series is like walking up and down the high street stark naked," he says, bushy eyebrows beetling as he recalls the agony. "I haven't felt so sick and nervous for a long time."

Unable to think of any other way to pass the time, and eager to see whether his arguments outshone his wardrobe, he watched it with his wife, Susan Douglas, a former Sunday Express editor. Big mistake. "Susan is an extremely harsh critic," he says, rolling his "r"s expressively. So, while he was worrying about whether anyone was watching - or liking - his account of the years when the map turned red, she was telling him which bits were too long or boring. "I do advise future virgin presenters to watch their programmes unaccompanied," he says.

Despite his wife's cavils and his own pessimism - which he ascribes to a Scottish Calvinist upbringing - Empire has had a rather better reception than the British Empire itself has had of late. After decades of cringing embarrassment, it is refreshing to be reminded that Britain gave the world a language, a financial system, relative peace, free trade and democracy, as well as the Black Hole of Calcutta and murderous missionaries.

A few critics have found Ferguson's approach as rose-tinted as the world political map in 1918, but most have relished his financially literate, morally subtle analyses of everything from slavery to the bond market. Viewing figures have equalled those for Simon Schama's History of Britain and, most pleasing of all for the presenter, his deliberately unremarkable clothes - pale trousers, bright shirts - have received almost no coverage. "Now I can revert to being a boring Oxford don," he says.

"Boring" seems excessively humble for someone of his talent, youth and energy. At his age - 38 - most dons are still polishing their PhD thesis for publication, while Niall (pronounced in the Scottish manner, "kneel") is both a Professor of Political and Financial History and the author of six big books - of which The Pity of War, a controversial study of the First World War, is a bestseller. No stranger to six-figure publishing advances, he is now a television star, too: the thinking woman's stovie, perhaps, since his boyish looks invite comparisons to Hugh Grant and Tom Cruise.

Also, at the risk of sounding as hyper-critical as his wife, the description "Oxford don" is misleading. He remains a senior fellow of Jesus College, but the morning after we meet, he is off to America to start lecturing at New York University's Stern business school. The job comes with a salary several times the British rate for the job, plus a Greenwich Village apartment - and he only has to be there for one term a year.

"As a New Yorker said to me, 'You seem to be very interested in money and power. Why don't you come where the money and the power are?' If I were a single man, I'd go to the States full time [Harvard is courting him, too], but..."

The "but" is his family. His wife has "a great job in London" - where she is President, New Business, for the Conde Nast magazine company. At work, Douglas has a reputation for being a tough operator: she recently won the contract for the Tate Gallery magazine after a rival company had held its victory party. Domestically, she seems equally capable of defending her interests against those of a husband eight years her junior.

"Perhaps," Ferguson says, "some people are still in the situation where, if a man decides to take a job somewhere else, the spouse will follow, but that's not the kind of marriage we have. Ours is very much an equal partnership. I can't just say, 'We're off to New York - pack.'

"She is extremely happy living in Oxfordshire, she likes riding horses - and periodically chasing foxes - she doesn't have an obvious incentive to go either to New York or to Harvard, and the children are happy at their schools. I'm very sympathetic to her priorities." He describes their union as "a business merger as much as a marriage".

On getting married, he not only changed his surname to Douglas Ferguson to match his wife's married name, he also bought a 50 per cent stake in her Oxfordshire farmhouse from her previous boyfriend and accepted that her wish to live in "a nice place" overrides his fear that it is "madness" to sink all their money into property.

Although, for the moment, Niall and Susan Inc will not be making a takeover bid for the title of Top British Media Couple in New York (currently held by Harry Evans and Tina Brown), there are further reasons, apart from money, why he is keen to have a break from Britain: "the fundamental crisis facing British universities," as he puts it. Dons are not just underpaid, they are also overworked. After 15 years of one-to-one undergraduate tutorials, he has had enough of de Tocqueville and the Corn Laws and is fed up with not having enough time left to research. "I'm stale," he explains. "There's a rigid course structure here, whereas in American universities I can say, 'I want to do a financial history of the Western world'."

Given the chance, he knows exactly how he would keep Oxford and Cambridge in the top rank. He would free them from state dependence, let them raise their own funds, charge their own fees, set their own exams and pay competitive rates. "A Harvard education is not worth five times an Oxford education," he points out. He would also scale back the undergraduate tutorials and create more postgraduate programmes: "That's where the real dynamism of a modern university comes from; that's where research and teaching more naturally coincide."

So could he sort Oxford out if he were made Vice-Chancellor? "Yes, but I would be prevented by vested interests. The vice-chancellor doesn't have the power."

Power fascinates him. Since he has views on everything from monetary union (no good without fiscal union) to foreign policy (credible threats avert wars), maybe he should go into politics? He shakes his head. He doesn't want a party label - Liberal Fundamentalist is the one he gives himself - and he doesn't think the work would suit him. "I failed miserably as a student politician. I am probably too aggressive and too ill-disciplined. To be a successful politician, it is not enough to be coherent and persuasive; you must also be prepared to defend the indefensible. I really am not interested in power for myself, but I am interested in understanding it. Tolstoy's big question - 'What is power?' - remains unanswered."

His attempts to answer that question involve looking beneath the historical surface of personalities and ideas. It wasn't adventurers, he points out in Empire, who created overseas expansion, it was a system of borrowing; it wasn't nationalism that caused the break-up of Empire, but the impoverishment wrought by two world wars.

His interest in money is intriguing, since he had the kind of secure middle-class upbringing that usually leaves its beneficiaries relatively indifferent to the stuff. His father was a doctor, his mother a teacher, and they sent him to Glasgow College, a private school, from where he won a scholarship to Oxford.

There, he experimented with alternatives to academe - acting, double-bass playing, politics and journalism, with which he has supplemented his income ever since. "I wasn't good enough at any of them. I would never have made it to editor like my wife. I'm too monomaniacal, I am only interested in what interests me. As an academic I can say what I like without courting unemployment."

And, of course, he has found a way to make history pay. But why this focus on money? "I'm not at all a materialistic person," he explains. "I'm a very insecure person. I have deep anxieties about impending disaster, nameless disaster; a sense that things may be going well, but that's just to set you up for the big disaster."

Even as a child, those anxieties oppressed him and his first published piece was a letter to the Glasgow Herald asking why, when children's feet were growing bigger, sooner, the price of shoes was unresponsive. "Why was I worrying about that when I was 10 or 11?" he says. "And why did I choose to study German hyperinflation in the Twenties?"

Subconsciously, he suspects, he was aware of the economic disaster that afflicted his family during the Thirties - when his grandfather's savings were "obliterated" - and again in the Seventies, when his parents struggled to pay his school fees in a pay freeze. "For some reason, I was acutely sensitive to economic pressure."

He says his nightmare is the "bourgeois dread" that, one day, all his savings will be wiped out and he might have to sell the house. That must make for tension with a wife whose horses "eat" money?

"I can't bear to think about them. It makes me nauseous to spend money, except on books and education. One of the keys to my marriage is that my wife and I are complementary figures. I am the pessimistic saver; Susan is the optimistic spender." At his present rate of earnings, their Oxfordshire home looks secure. But, of course, he might sell up and move to America... "No, I'm far too indebted to Oxford and Britain to leave for good," he says. "But I may spend most of the next decade there."

To cope with that, he has taught his children - Felix, Freya and Lachlan - to send e-mails, so that he can avoid too many telephone calls. "I must have a diagnosable condition," he says. "However well a conversation starts, it always ends up getting more and more grumpy." Next, he might focus his impressive energy on curing himself of that condition.

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