For a socialist and active anti-imperial campaigner for sixty years – apartheid, Suez, Rhodesia, Vietnam – to be seen to be defending the British Empire will strike some as not only perverse, but also dangerous to his reputation, his career, if he has one, and even to his health. But I am a scholar and a professional historian before I am a political activist, although with my politics informed, I believe, by my knowledge of history, and am safely retired to boot; and so I feel I cannot let the recent furore over the upcoming project on ‘Ethics and Empire’, formulated by the Moral Theologian Nigel Biggar and others at Oxford, pass without comment. I’m also a particular authority on the early history of ‘anti-imperialism’ in Britain – my first book was on Critics of Empire – which is supposedly the cause that fires most of Professor Biggar’s opponents.
The row started after Biggar published a short op-ed in The Times provocatively entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’ (https:/thetimes.co.uk/article/don-t-feel-guilty-about-our-colonial-history-ghvstdhmy). That in turn was based on an article by Bruce Gilley, an American political scientist, in a prestigious academic journal which began: ‘For the last hundred years, western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy’. That article, according to Biggar’s piece, provoked 15 members of the journal’s editorial board to resign, a petition demanding its retraction gathering 16,000 signatures, and its eventual retraction after the editor received death threats from Indian nationalists. It didn’t gloss over the atrocities committed in the name of imperialism, but simply pointed out that such atrocities had gone on before the Europeans arrived and continued after they left. So, ‘the notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in the light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies.’ Gilley also pointed to some ‘virtues’ of colonial rule, which ‘often’ included ‘the formation of coherent political communities’, and the institution of ‘order’. Ignore the fact that British imperialism was ‘morally mixed’, Biggar concludes, and ‘our guilt will make us vulnerable to wilful manipulation’, and will encourage ‘the belief that the best way that we can serve the world is by leaving it well alone’. In order to balance this sense of guilt Biggar suggests that we recover some of the ‘pride’ we used to feel in our Empire; the ‘proud’ episode he uses as an example is the Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade during the nineteenth century. ‘Pride,’ he concludes, ‘can temper shame’. Only ‘temper’, note; not drive it out.
Biggar’s prospectus for his ‘Ethics and Empire’ project (and John Darwin’s, originally, before he withdrew for ‘personal reasons’), followed along these lines. ‘In most reaches of contemporary academic discourse,’ its ‘Rationale’ begins, ‘the topic of ethics and empire raises no questions to which widely accepted answers are not immediately to hand. By definition, ‘empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical. Nothing of interest remains to be explored.’ Further, these assumptions pervade other areas of study, and also our reactions to present-day events, often misleadingly.
Then on 19 December last year there appeared an ‘Open Letter’, signed by 58 ‘Oxford Scholars’, objecting to Biggar’s article and his ‘Ethics and Empire’ project, on the grounds that they risked ‘being construed as representative of Oxford scholarship’, and as reinforcing the ‘pervasive sense’ that ‘contemporary inequalities… at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past’ (http://theconversation.com/ethics-and-empire-an-open-letter-from-oxford-scholars-89333). Gilley’s earlier piece was seen as advocating ‘a “recolonisation” of parts of the world by Western powers as a solution to misgovernment in the global south,… so fortify[ing] support for overseas military interventions today.’ The letter took issue with Biggar’s characterisation of present-day thinking about imperialism as uniformly negative, and finished by expressing its signatories’ opposition to what they took to be his implication that ‘it should be rehabilitated because some of it was good.’
I hope I’ve summarised both sides of the case fairly here. I have some problems with Biggar’s piece, and a degree of sympathy with some of the opposition’s arguments: for instance, against the idea that the British Empire can be assessed in terms of a balance-sheet of positive and negative motives and effects. ‘Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians,’ write the protesters. ‘They are useless to historians.’ As a historian myself I’d go along with that; but Biggar is, after all, a theologian. His approach is worth considering, at least. Some useful questions arise from it: for example, do ‘evil’ (or negative) effects always stem from wicked motivations? My studies have shown that, so far as probably most empires are concerned, ‘good’ (and Christian) intentions often gave rise to the worst of results – and vice-versa, although to a lesser extent. That’s a simple, but also an interesting and relevant, moral point. I’m also unhappy with Biggar’s idea of ‘pride’s tempering shame’, believing, as I’ve written before, than none of us should feel either pride or blame for anything done by our forefathers (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/04/imperial-blame/); and that a better filter through which to observe these things is an objective and value-free one. It may be worthwhile in some cases to remind students about the crimes perpetrated under the aegis of the British Empire, but only in order to counteract excessive reactionary pride in the latter; and, in the same way, to remind the more rabid anti-imperialists of some of Empire’s more positive or neutral sides. And there are plenty of those – radicals who see all imperialism as bad – pace the Open Letterers.
In fact British imperial history is too complex and nuanced to reduce it in this kind of way. British imperialism was weaker and less effective than it appeared from those great (and late) red-besplattered world maps; ruled by a miniscule and generally upright civil service and a larger number of collaborators; its different sorts of colonies governed in a myriad of ways, most of them involving partnership with indigenes or (less happily) settlers; with many colonial subjects being ‘free-er’ than their metropolitan equivalents; acquired in a dozen different ways, not all by force, and a few by local choice; with eventual self-government as its professed ultimate aim most of the time; not always racist – or it would not have wanted to ‘improve’ its subjects; generally aware of the difficulties and perils of ‘improvement’ with regard to non-European cultures, which the British sometimes lauded before their own; and occasionally – just occasionally – appreciated by its subjects, or victims. What happened in the colonies was affected just as much by extraneous factors as by ‘imperialism’ per se: most often by the inexorable growth and expansion of exploitative global capitalism – another kind of imperialism – which the British often rode, but just as often sought to impede, in the supposed interests of their colonial wards. (For more on this see my British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t, 2015.) ‘Imperialism’ and ‘empire’ are too simple, reductive and often misleading words to describe all this. (I once suggested at a conference that we historians stop using them for a bit, in order to focus on the realities behind them. It didn’t catch on.)
In any case the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project is supposed to be a vehicle for the discussion of these matters, which, if it brings nuance to them, can only benefit both our historical understanding, and the ways we use the word ‘imperialism’ in modern political discourse. It will certainly bring some useful lessons to the question of ‘foreign intervention’, which old-style imperialists wrestled with, both practically and ethically, too. Historical discussions should not be boycotted simply because the initial statement of aims might appear crude, or wrong-headed, or open to misinterpretation, or to imply (only) one hypothesis rather than another. That is a profoundly unscholarly approach, which brings far more shame on Oxford University than Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ enterprise.
I should add that I’m unfamiliar with the Oxford scene, and unaware of all aspects of the local context to this dispute. Most of the 58 who signed the ‘Open Letter’ against Biggar are not leading imperial historians, and some of them seem to be quite far removed from the field. (What is a musicologist doing there, for example; or an expert on Diderot?) Who are the originators of the protest? I imagine (but don’t know for sure) that they are remnants of the unsuccessful ‘Rhodes statue’ protest of a year or two ago. How representative are they of the Oxford student body, or the Fellows? I also don’t know why John Darwin – the best of our current imperial historians – withdrew from the project. To my mind it seems a highly worthwhile one; illuminating and valuable not only to new imperialist reactionaries, but also – and more so, I would say – to us better informed old Antis.