“…the judgement of history will…be that he did more than any other Englishman of his time to lower their reputation and to impair the strength and compromise the future of the Empire”.
The Manchester Guardian on the death of Cecil Rhodes, 27 March, 1902
Alphen, Netherlands. 6 January. Just before Christmas I was wandering around the colleges of my alma mater Oxford University as a very typically British university scandal broke. A group of students led by a South African Rhodes scholar demanded that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be taken down from its lofty perch looking down on the learned folk of Oriel College. Rhodes was the arch-imperialist and even archer-capitalist of the late nineteenth century, and founder of said elite scholarship. By any stretch of the historical imagination Rhodes was not a nice man. Indeed, as his 1902 obituary in the Manchester Guardian implied Rhodes’s lust for ever greater imperial power as an extension of his own imposed misery and exploitation on millions of black Africans and Boer settlers across much of southern Africa.
As I wandered with what I would hope is the educated eye of the Oxford historian I also wondered why Rhodes and why now? In an attempt to answer that question I found myself looking at many of the statues that drip from Oxford like baubles on a Christmas tree. By my estimate at least half of the statues were either of exceptional people who were exceptional precisely because they had either offended or imposed their views on large numbers of others, or been the victims of such views.
Now, I suppose I could take a very narrow view and suggest that the South African Rhodes scholar in question has much to gain if he seeks a political career back in his native land (as do many Rhodes scholars) by attacking the memory of Cecil Rhodes. However, for the sake of argument I will be generous and accept that the #RhodesMustFall campaign is principled.
Even if it is principled it reflects a very narrow view of history and with the best will in the world must be seen more as an attack on contemporary Britain as much as an attack on nineteenth century British imperialism. What is galling for me and indeed many is how quickly the leadership of Oriel College simply caved in. A plaque honouring Rhodes was almost immediately removed and in February Oriel will start a six month ‘consultation’ in February to decide whether or not Rhodes must indeed fall. My fear is that said consultation will be about as genuine and indeed as effective as David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership of the EU!
There is however a further question that this storm in an Oxford teapot raises; to what extent can and indeed should one impose contemporary values on past historical figures? History happened, or at least the history from the viewpoint of the victor at any point in history happened. Therefore, the mistake perhaps was not that of Oriel’s current High Table but that of a century ago which raised the statue of a man controversial even at the time, no doubt in return for oodles of his money. Still, look around Oxford today and one will find new centres a-sprouting named after Saudi power-brokers and their ilk, with one that even bears the name of a Ukrainian arms dealer. In other words, British universities have long prostrated themselves before dodgy money.
However, for me the ‘why now’ question is the key to understanding Rhodesgate. There is a strange phenomenon sweeping across and through British universitydom at present of which Rhodesgate is but a very mild variant. It can best be called the intolerant tolerance. The basic premise upon which tolerant intolerance is established is actually quite simple; British is bad, non-British is better, however bad. The most obvious examples of this are the so-called ‘safe havens’ which have been established in certain British universities for those with extreme views, but only if those views conform to a certain brand of extremism. Indeed, to conform such views must normally be of a leftist or Islamist persuasion, which lead on occasions to strange alliances between hard socialists and those with views that by any standards are closer to fascism than socialism.
Thus, the attack on Rhodes is in fact but the latest attack on Britain, or rather the narrative that is Britain, by those with an axe to grind against Britain. Often under the name of ‘restorative justice’ it is an axe that is only sharpened on one side. The aim is to establish a new empire of thought within British universities that is often more about the politics of race than the politics of ideas.
If not confronted by persons of good will à la Burke I fear for the future of British universities. No longer will they be empires of experimentation where intellects freely consider desired future by freely considering the complex past. A place where debate is not shaped by narrow factionalism but rather enlightenment and illumination emerge from open debate between smart good people irrespective or race, gender, nationality and/or orientation. A place where again the tolerance of informed difference is regarded as sacrosanct. If not, then I fear ‘debate’, or what passes for debate, will only take places be between those of one particular view of power and history. The tragedy of irony is that such ‘debate’ is little more than intellectual fascism. Those who do not adhere to the permitted view-set? They will be either marginalised or keep quiet for fear of being pilloried, or worse.
Walk down Broad Street and just outside Balliol you will find a strange stone cross in the centre of the road. It is Martyr’s Cross where in 1555 Queen Mary had Bishops Latimer and Ridley burned at the stake for heresy. Perhaps the worse outcome of Rhodesgate would be to turn a ghastly old man into a latter day Oxford Martyr for the silent many who resent the growing attacks on Britain dressed up as pompous PC piety.
So, let me finish by paraphrasing the Guardian’s obituary of Rhodes. The judgement of history is that he is doing as much as any Englishman of his time to impair the strength and compromise the future of his country even over a century after his death.
Let history be the judge of Rhodes, not the mob, however ‘intelligent’. Let his statue stand as a warning from history.