Skip to Content


In defence of Niall Ferguson

8 May 2013

6:05 PM

8 May 2013

6:05 PM

One of the most striking divides in the left/right political debate is this. Those on the right disagree with people on the left. They find left-wing opinions misguided, incorrect or otherwise wrong. But they tend not to assume that their opponents are evil. This favour is rarely reciprocated.

The Harvard professor and historian Niall Ferguson is the latest to suffer from this. In a discussion in California last week, he was invited to comment on John Maynard Keynes’ notorious observation, ‘In the long run we are all dead’. Ferguson mentioned somewhat flippantly that Keynes may have been more indifferent to the future because he had no children, because he was gay. For this he is now being denounced as an anti-gay bigot.

All the usual self-appointed, left-wing, gay-rights ‘spokespeople’ (incidentally, at which convention did we appoint them?) have condemned him. Ben Summerskill and Peter Tatchell have referred to the comments on Keynes as a ‘homophobic slur’. Others have claimed that his comments ‘take gay-bashing to new heights.’

As it happens I don’t think Niall Ferguson needed to apologise for making this comment. The attempt to shut down debate to such an extent that a glib off-the-cuff comment such as this can be subjected to such souped-up outrage is another reminder that the left-wing search for what it thinks of as ‘equality’ has become little more than an attempt to ignore any and all differences that exist in the world.

For instance, no difference between men and women can be commented upon without being accused of being ‘sexist’. No difference between transsexuals and non-transexuals can be referred to without committing ‘transphobia’. No difference between different cultures can be commented upon without being deemed ‘racist’. And no difference between gay people and straight people can be mentioned without being accused of ‘homophobia’. For what it is worth, none of this does anything to help the cause of actual equality. It simply attempts to shut down discussion, straining in the hope that if we pretend there are no differences between people then there will exist no differences between people.

The specific difference Niall Ferguson appears to have been referring to is not between gay people and straight people but between people who have children and those who do not. Most gay people do not have children while most straight people I think still do. Whatever the sex or sexuality, I would suggest that having children or not having children is one of the biggest differences that exists between people. This isn’t to say that people who don’t have children have no concern over the future. I don’t have any children and I don’t think anyone could successfully claim that I am under-concerned about the future. But there are major differences between the concerns of those who have children who they need to provide for and those who don’t.

As it happens, Ferguson obviously feels he spoke badly and has issued a fulsome apology for his comments in an ‘open letter to the Harvard community’ (which can be found here). But a great round of ‘Niall Ferguson, right-wing historian and homophobe’ claims has gone up. I suppose they can now join the ‘Niall Ferguson, right-wing historian and racist’ slur that did the rounds a couple of years back.

As with so much in our current debates, the argument works just fine so long as you don’t have to submit any evidence.  Niall is far too decent a person to play the game of identity politics that the left expects, and whose absence it punishes. When he was casually accused of racism it did not matter to his critics that his wife happens to be a black refugee from Somalia. Had Niall been on the left he would doubtless have gone on and on about having a Somali-born wife. But he doesn’t, and since he is on the right it would offer no protection anyhow.

The same goes for his alleged ‘homophobia’. I am not the only gay friend of Niall’s who can attest to the absolutely fathomless stupidity of the claim. Plenty of others, some public figures but most not, could do likewise. At Niall’s wedding a couple of years back I certainly met some heterosexual couples, but it took a while to find them. Of course a left-winger would bang on and on about this. But those on the right tend to hope that we don’t have to. That, though, is to forget the terrible fact that in the eyes of much of the left, if you are on the right you are guilty until you are ‘proved’ guilty.

As it happens, most of the anti-gay hatred I experience is as able to come from people who think of themselves as being on the political left as on the right. It is precisely because they think they’ve got all this stuff neatly squirreled away as a tool to use against their opponents that they don’t need to wonder if they are remotely susceptible to it themselves.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments


The Spectator Comment Policy

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.