Friday, 11 March 2011
The West and the Rest
Niall Ferguson - professor, TV historian, Glasgow boy - returned to his home city yesterday to give a talk at the Aye Write Festival.
I've read two of his books this year - Empire and Ascent of Money - both of which I found hugely helpful as regards the novel I've been writing.
Feguson isn't to everyone's taste, of course. He is, like David Starkey, a Marmite historian. One friend of mine actually shuddered at the thought of going to his talk (she refused to entertain the idea). That said, the Mitchell Theatre was pretty well full and my impression was that he got a very warm response before and after his lecture.
His current schtick is based on his new book and C4 TV series: Civilization, The West and the Rest. Ferguson relishes the soundbite and has boiled down the past five hundred years of history into "six killer apps" which the west had, but the others didn't. It's a compelling argument but actually not that different from the world history course I did at Glasgow Uni back in 1987. What makes it new is the inexorable rise, in the past decade, of China. Ferguson talks a lot about China, has travelled there extensively, and it was intriguing to hear his take on it. One person asked how long before China would have to become a democracy: he fired back the answer "20 years" (based on the South Korean and Singapore model).
He doubted it would come sooner because he didn't think the young generation there were interested in political freedom. One young woman apparently told him that she and her friends don't care about the 'Square thing'. She meant Tiananmen Square.
His final comment was both provocative and memorable. "What should we do here in Scotland?" he was asked. "Get your kids to read Adam Smith," he replied, adding, "We should reconnect with Smith and forget about Marx" (I'm paraphrasing).
My friend would have been impressed with that, but he has a point.