Oxford and the Ethics of Empire

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.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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13 Responses to Oxford and the Ethics of Empire

  1. Pingback: Further Developments on ‘Ethics and Empire’ – Nigel Biggar

  2. Pingback: Biggar and Biggar | Porter’s Pensées

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  4. [1] “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?”
    [2] “[A] better filter through which to observe these things is an objective and value-free one.”

    Given that the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project entails at its core a reflection of the ethical issues that concern imperialism, I am baffled that you would think that a ‘value-free’ ‘filter’ is the best way to approach the subject matter. An ethical reflection will necessarily, it seems, involve terms and concepts such as ‘ethical’, ‘unethical’, ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’. A moral judgement is even built into the description of some of the events – such as the Amritsar massacre and the Tasmanian genocide – that an ‘Ethics and Empire’ project would want to discuss. You appear to acknowledge this point when you assent to the idea that a theologian could be a useful participant in the debate.

    Also, if you believe that historians’ work is, or should aim to be, ‘objective’ and ‘value-free’, then it does not seem to me that historians deserve a privileged place in a forum that wants to subject historical practices to ethical scrutiny. Additionally, the two issues – whether the forum should be criticised or praised; boycotted or not boycotted – both involve primarily ethical considerations. From this perspective it does not seem relevant that: “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.” An expert on Diderot might well have a better grasp of the ethical issues concerning, for example, the closed nature of the forum than an imperial historian who assiduously refrains from making ethical judgments in his research and discourse.

    The idea that historical research and discourse can be entirely objective and value-free is implausible and problematic. You write: “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.” Presumably here you do not mean by ‘crime’ only those actions that violated British law. I assume also that if you discussed, for example, the Tasmanian genocide in a seminar, you would not say to your students that they should be careful not make any moral judgments of the perpetrators or the system of governance that made the genocide a reality. It would involve a glaring contradiction to advocate moral neutrality when ‘genocide’ is already a morally loaded concept.


    • Thanks, Philip. I’ll reply later – have been travelling (Stockholm-London-Hull), and at present am immersed in a review article for the LRB with a very stiff deadline. In the meantime here (if it works) is a new piece by Biggar which, if it doesn’t answer your points, might contribute to the discussion. I broadly go along with it.
      /Users/bernardporter/Desktop/OM Final 10 jan 2018.pdf

      If it doesn’t work, and you can send me an email address, I might be able to send it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “And I have no objection to ‘closed’ seminars per se – they’re normal, and quite proper.”
    But not under all circumstances, surely. What about a forum that was dedicated to the evaluation of the works of Bernard Porter, to which neither you nor any of your academic supporters or sympathisers were invited? Furthermore, conveners of this forum ensured that vociferous Porter critics were invited. Would it not be reasonable in those circumstances to criticise the forum and seek to question its integrity? It might even be considered in order to call for a boycott of the event, so that some who historians who had already accepted invitations might be motivated to withdraw.


  6. However, if an Oxford scholar was issued an invitation and declined the invitation because they disagreed with the terms of the programme – because they agreed with the open letter – then the Oxford scholar is clearly boycotting. Also, someone who had previously agreed to be part of the forum could be persuaded by the open letter objectors and join the boycott.

    I cannot see why you have a problem with this idea, Bernard. One of the original instigators of the programme has already withdrawn.

    If the Oxford group decided to invite someone outside of Oxford because of their special expertise, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the group objecting.


  7. This is a very good post, Bernard, and from what I can see, you have succeeded in putting both cases fairly. However, I am interested in the end of the ‘open letter’ where it states: “Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history will be engaging with the “Ethics and Empire” programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars.” If one reads the whole letter, this final statement seems to imply that the programme is first of all being (i) criticised for the reasons you set out, but is finally being (ii) boycotted because it is closed and by invitation only.

    From that point of you, I see no problems with the open letter’s (i) criticising the terms of a research project – you must have done so many times as a professor at Hull – even though I might want to take issue with the criticisms as you do; and I also have some degree of sympathy with (ii) a boycott of an academic forum that purports to represent a university but which is exclusive and exclusionary in its choice of participants.

    It is not entirely clear, to me at least, whether you think: (a) it is wrong for the authors of the open letter to criticise a proposed project; or (b) whether it is merely the tenor and content of the criticisms themselves that is at issue; or (c) whether it is the matter of a boycott that causes your very strong reaction.

    In summary, and I have allow the possibility that I have misinterpreted your argument, your post does not really cover the matter of the open letter’s stated reason for the boycott. I suppose you might think that the stated reason is disingenuous and that the real reasons are to be found elsewhere; however, the letter perhaps deserves to be taken at face value in the first instance at least. Perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll get back to you on this, Philip. (Presently struggling with a pile of mail etc. on my return from a month in Sweden.) In the meantime, there’s a letter in today’s Guardian from Philip Murphy which adds to the debate.
      Just one point, however: how can you ‘boycott’ an event which is ‘closed’ to you?


      • It means presumably that if – as in expert in the field – you were one of the chosen and received an invitation, you would refuse to participate.

        What would your reaction be, Bernard, if you were invited to attend and participate in an event of this kind?

        By the way, it would surely cast further doubts on the bona fides of the programme if you were not invited.


      • So, if you’re not invited, and it’s not ‘open’, you can’t ‘boycott’ it. – As I understand it, this is to be an interdisciplinary forum for Oxford academics. As I’m not at (or from) Oxford, I wouldn’t expect to be invited. And I have no objection to ‘closed’ seminars per se – they’re normal, and quite proper.


  8. eric says:

    a Guardian article a few days ago by the author of the petition, who’s a historian of the French colonial empire: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/03/history-empire-pride-guilt-truth-oxford-nigel-biggar

    Liked by 2 people

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