Free Speech and Imperialism

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 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:; and (later),  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.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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12 Responses to Free Speech and Imperialism

  1. Transitioning says:

    I’ve only just heard about this furore but what Darwin doesn’t know about the British Empire is far more than most people think they know. But then many people think they know an awful lot about many things simply because they have strong feelings about them, which these days passes for the incontrovertible Truth. .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. eric says:

    As for the current situation at Oxford: I’d think that few senior academics would like the idea of no-platforming in principle, though a substantial number might be moved if the issue/speaker is particular emotive/extreme. Students would be more volatile, especially those on the Left. But (from my experience) even quite left-wing students are far from uniformly platform-deniers. Such sentiment seems attributable to groupthink, but also to frustration – with those, for example, who insist that empire was simply a Good Thing, or who want all immigrants out etc. Academics and students itch to Do Something About It, by signing petitions or denying platforms – I doubt that all those who signed the petition that one of the Mail articles swoops on in fact read everything it mentions (Biggar’s article, Gilley’s article, the outline of the project that Biggar and John Darwin propose to run).
    That petition was indeed signed by a large batch of senior academics (pace the ‘friends of Biggar’ cited in the article), including several history and politics tutors of long standing, as well as Bob Gildea, the statutory professor of modern history, although to say that all signatories ‘work on histories of empire and colonialism and their after-effects, broadly understood’ seems to be stretching the bow a little – one, for example, is a Diderot scholar, another a musicologist working on Grieg, Sibelius and Elgar (maybe it was the Elgar that did it for him, despite your article). But the petition hardly ‘denounces’ Professor Biggar (‘firmly rejects’ is its term); and it’s simply a lie to talk about ‘their vehement opposition to Professor Biggar being allowed to express his own opinions’ – ‘Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses’, the petition says, though it’s unclear whether the signatories are ‘boycotting’ the project that Biggar and John Darwin will run, or whether they’re simply saying that they haven’t been invited. In fact, the petition makes precisely your point that drawing up a balance sheet to decide whether the empire was good or bad is misguided.
    What’s most surprising (and more than a little disturbing) about the Mail article, though, is the pains that the author took in digging up the signatories’ social media posts – and whom they live with by checking the electoral roll. ‘Inquiries suggest’, he writes, ‘a nakedly political agenda has motivated this attack’, which is of course bollocks. We can perhaps take comfort that most Mail journalists are not nearly so diligent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • eric says:

      John Darwin, I learn, has withdrawn recently from the project ‘for personal reasons’.

      Another point is that Biggar seems particularly annoyed that none of the signatories, including one who knew him in person, raised the matter with him personally. A cultural/generational difference is probably relevant here, younger academics being more likely to use the internet as the medium of first instance, and having less ‘communal’ an attitude towards the college or university.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for this – very enlightening!


  3. I see, however, that there is opposition to the statue’s relocation in Manchester itself.


  4. A statue museum sounds like a good idea. The significance of the exhibits could be clearly explained to observers. Confining them in a restricted area, where they have to jostle for attention with other sculptures, also deprives the images of the spacial dominance they possess when placed in a square or similar open public space.
    And now to contradict myself, I have to express regret that the entertaining and educative modernist 1986 statue of Marx and Engels has been relocated from its prominent position in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz public central square to a park near the GDR museum in Berlin, some distance from its original position.


  5. The pre-1953 erection of statues of Stalin in Budapest was a clear political statement at a time when Hungary was a satellite state of the USSR. Bernard, are you saying that it was wrong of Hungarian nationalists to pull down the statues, symbols of Soviet imperialism, as part of the uprising of 1956? The protesters were also making an obvious political statement.
    Statues celebrating the Confederacy were constructed across the South in the Jim Crow era of 1910 to 1920, and then again in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. The authorities who commissioned these statues were articulating a racist platform. It is acceptable for the segregationists to make their statement in 1960 but not all right for anti-racists to make theirs in 2017?
    The statues of Rhodes were not, I assume, explicit political statements celebrating the subjugation of the African population by white Europeans, so their status is somewhat different to the images of Robert E. Lee in the South.
    Each decision about retaining or erasing solid images of the past needs to be judged on its context, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Philip, you’re right. Judge each case on its merits. The American one, however, would qualify under my ‘politically febrile’ qualification. Perhaps Robert E Lee could be taken down and stored, to be re-erected at a time in the future when its function would only be to remind Southerners of what by then would be their long-regretted history. (If that time ever comes.)


      • eric says:

        Indeed: if it were a statue of Hitler that Oriel had on its back wall, I doubt it would have survived until now. So it would be a little simplistic to give an answer simply on the grounds that we shouldn’t whitewash history, as Mary Beard for one seems to do. Also relevant are the philosophical question of how past action is to be morally evaluated; the empirical question of what/how much Rhodes, and his contemporaries, in fact did (step forward historians); and the practical question of what monuments are meant to achieve anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

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