I have to confess – should it be a matter for ‘confession’? – that I’m entirely in agreement with Jo Johnson, the Tory Universities Minister (and brother of the sillier Johnson), when he opposes student bodies enforcing ‘no-platform’ policies on visiting speakers whose views they disagree with, or even find abhorrent – like the attempted ban on Germaine Greer a couple of years ago for her views on trans-sexuality. (See https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/universities-warned-over-free-speech-by-jo-johnson-bqp2d5np0.) I also strongly disapprove of those – usually students, again – who wish to remove all public traces of historical ‘imperialism’ or other alleged national wrongdoings from our buildings and streets: such as the small statue of Cecil Rhodes over the gate of Oriel College Oxford, which was a recent target. (To its great credit, the College didn’t give in over this.)
My objections to these claims and practices are the same as those of all traditional liberals, and with the same qualifications as theirs – shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, for example; and identical to those of most defenders of universities, as essential crucibles of free-thinking ideas. Consequently they should be too familiar to require repetition here. I may even be a bit of an extremist in this regard: Jo Johnson wants to make an exception in the case of far-Right speakers; I wouldn’t, unless they are clearly inciting violence, or the contemporary political atmosphere is particularly febrile. Even that would mark a failure of liberalism, if possibly a necessary and hopefully a short-lived one.
In this connection I was disheartened by these reports in recent issues of the Daily Mail, sent to me by a friend who has a stronger stomach than I for seeking out pieces in that particular swamp: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5207687/Oxford-home-Tory-loathing-anti-Israel-academics.html; and (later), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5213269/Snowflake-students-demand-removal-triggering-books.html. Coming from the Daily Mail, which has been pursuing a vendetta against Left-leaning academics ever since it found out that most university-educated young people voted ‘Remain’ in last year’s EU referendum, one has to take its allegations with a very large pinch of salt. Before I contribute anything more substantial to this discussion, I want to examine the Mail’s allegations more closely. I’m sure there is some truth in them. But how much? Who are these ‘platform-deniers’? How many of them are there? How many senior academics can there possibly be among them? (One can forgive the odd hot-headed young zealot.) Is the wider Oxford academic community taking them at all seriously? – I don’t know the answers to these questions, and genuinely want to find out.
The reason why I feel almost duty bound to stick my oar into this debate is that much of it revolves around the question of ‘British imperialism’, and is conducted by people who regard themselves as ‘anti-imperialists’. That, I’m afraid, is my area of expertise: both the Empire, about which I’ve published several books, and anti-imperialism in particular, which I was (I think) the first to write about (in Critics of Empire, 1968). I’ve desisted up to now because I’ve regarded the modern row about ‘imperialism’, and whether it was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, to be substantially wide of the mark on both sides; in ways, however, which it will be difficult to explain cogently enough to take its part in this highly simplistic, black-and-white debate. It will require some context and depth.
My most recent attempt to provide this – British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t – came out a couple of years ago, and is pretty concise, but still takes up a whole book. I’ll try to distil it down: first of all, hopefully, in this blog, and then perhaps more widely and publicly. The problem of course is that the more nuanced one is over ‘imperialism’, the more likely one is to be taken as an ‘apologist’ for it. So, for the record: I too have a poor opinion of Cecil Rhodes.