hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Oxford Historian and the Biggar Picture

“The “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously”.

Open Letter from 58 Oxford historians criticising Professor Nigel Biggar.

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 December. Whatever happened to academic rigour and the disciplined professionalism to consider historical evidence from many angles?

On the face it the argument between Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and some of my fellow Oxford historians over the frame of reference for the study of the British Empire is a storm in a Queen’s Lane Coffee House tea-cup.  In an article that appeared in The Times newspaper Biggar, according to his critics, had the temerity to suggest that the British Empire was not all bad. By way of response a host of Oxford historians penned an open letter of complaint in which they imply Biggar is a right-wing racist bigot for even suggesting such heresy. This is an important argument that is not only deeply political, but goes to the very core of why we study history, and the danger posed by the growing intolerance of the academic political Left.

The attack on Biggar presents itself as being apolitical. It is anything but. Rather, it is yet another example of an attempt by the political Left to dominate British university discourse and to prevent dissent through public intimidation.  By publishing an open letter in The Conversation attacking Professor Biggar and his course Ethics and Empire the aim of these ‘historians’ is clearly to whip up another of those ‘snowflake’ storms of outrage which have become all the rage amongst left-wing academics.
The key political phrase in the letter is this: “For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its [Britain’s] imperial past”. The basic premise here is that because the British Empire was intrinsically evil Britain must bear guilt and because Britain must bear guilt it forfeits the right to a national interest. Britain must thus atone for its past ‘evils’ by using what power it has to support others, even if that is at the expense of itself and its own people. The key phrase is “…our students”. By that they certainly do not mean the whole student body but simply those activist students who share their dogmatic, leftist views? What pretentious, pompous twaddle.

The letter goes on, “Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians”.  And yet ‘good’ and evil’ as a basis for understanding the British Empire is precisely what these ‘historians’ are trying to impose on the rest of us.  In fact, Biggar takes a morally neutral position in his work precisely to enable a more nuanced study of the British Empire, who and why it was created and how it evolved over some four hundred years. By attacking Biggar in the manner and tone they adopt his detractors simply reveal themselves to be politically-motivated and intolerant and consequently fail as Oxford historians.  Worse, by applying their own left-wing framework of political reference to the actions of people over four hundred years they negate of the very art of the historian by imposing their values on past actions.  As a result, they reduce the moral and ethical narrative of the entirety of the British Empire to a ‘simple’ and absurd equation; the abolition of slavery by the second Empire versus the Amritsar massacre and the Tasmanian genocide, both of which were terrible events, one of which was ordered by a very poor general and which was deemed appalling even by the standards of his day.

The letter also states that, “Biggar sets up a caricature in place of an antagonist: an allegedly prevailing orthodoxy that “imperialism is wicked”. His project’s declared aim is to uncover a more complex reality, whose “positive aspects” dispassionate scholarship can reveal. This is nonsense. No historian (or, as far as we know, any cultural critic or postcolonial theorist) argues simply that imperialism was “wicked””. And yet the letter clearly implies that for the letter’s authors the British Empire was utterly wicked.

The letter goes on, “We welcome continued, open, critical engagement in the ongoing reassessment of the histories of empire and their legacies both in Britain and elsewhere in the world. We have never believed it is sufficient to dismiss imperialism as simply “wicked”. Nor do we believe it can or should be rehabilitated because some of it was “good””. Really? There is no evidence I can see from Professor Biggar’s work that he is endeavouring to ‘rehabilitate’ the British Empire, nor is it the role of the professional historian or theologian to ‘rehabilitate’ anyone or anything.

Why does this dispute matter? The politicisation of history in British universities is more than an academic dispute. It is about political power and the very purpose of universities. Some Oxford historians go on to enjoy glittering careers in politics and the civil service. If their world-view is shaped by those who believe contemporary British policy should be shackled by guilt Britain will decline even further and even faster than it is now. As for the purpose of British universities the danger exists that they will simply espouse a political mono-culture, much like Russian universities from Lenin to Putin.

What are the implications of such political intolerance? A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a leading academic in a top department at a well-respected British university who invited me to apply for a professorial chair.  As you might expect I was honoured but after due consideration decided not to apply.  Now, many of you who read my scribblings know I am no snowflake.  Indeed, I like and welcome robust debate.  Moreover, I do not characterize myself as either a progressive or a conservative, but rather both. Unfortunately, British universities are no longer places where such debate can take place and the academics who scribed the letter simply demonstrate the intolerant refusal to debate that so concerns me. Worse, some British universities are beginning to take on the appearance of state-funded ‘re-education camps’ in which people who do not conform to a political mono-culture are shouted down by the self-important and self-righteous.  If people of my robustness are being deterred from applying for posts, I can assure you that many others are also so deterred.

Why is an open-minded study of the British Empire important?  Many years ago I was invited to lunch in New Delhi. Present at the lunch was a mix of British and Indian officials and academics.  The British (yours truly accepted), determined to uphold the longest apology in history and which is doing so much to suck the life out of Britain’s contemporary strategic mojo, were in full ‘don’t mention the Raj accept to say sorry’ mode.  My line was provocatively different.  India, I said, is an emerging Great Power, Britain is still a power to be reckoned with and there is much we can and should do together.  After several bouts of British official tut-tutting an old Indian lady suddenly averred, “You know things were better here when the British were in charge, but it was right the British left”. 

The British Empire was of its age, and over four hundred years it did a lot of good and a lot of bad when viewed through a contemporary lens. When it was over it was right that it was over.  Indeed, as a contemporary Oxford historian my historically-informed political view is that people should always aspire to the freedom to screw up their own countries.  Here, Britain is again leading the world.

The study of history will always be to an extent political, and there have been well-documented contentions between Oxford historians for centuries that attest to the politics of historical study. However, it is, at best, poor tradecraft to apply the political values of one dogmatic group today to the actions of another group centuries ago. Yes, the study of history must also always be challenging.  At the same time the study of history must always, by definition, seek balance, because a lack of balance leads to the over-politicisation of history and results in abominations, such as Holocaust denial.  Indeed, the problem of politicised history is not solely one of the political Left. The political Right also poses a threat to the study of history by too often championing and exaggerating the supposed actions of the past to maintain historical myths that in turn enable nostalgia as the basis for policy.  Both are wrong and Biggar, it seems to me, is right to challenge both camps to put down the mega-phones and again embrace respectful debate.

It is also a privilege to be a professional Oxford historian. If they do nothing else this group of dons and fellows should aspire to be the guardians of historiography and the art and craft of the professional historian. At the very least that means up-putting with research and topics for research they might find objectionable, if the methodology is sound. Rather, the tone and substance of the attack on Professor Biggar reveals a group of Oxford historians have not only lost balance in seeking to impose a contemporary political agenda on the study of history, they have also failed in their duty as professional Oxford historians and let down their students.

The joy of being a historian is the search for evidence and the debate it engenders. The discipline of the historian is to suppress one’s own prejudices in an attempt to understand the ‘then’ contemporaneous relationship between cause and effect.  Discipline, open-mindedness and tolerance are thus vital because history is always essentially political because so much of it is about power. However, what really saddens me about this latest bout tale of academic mud-slinging is the questionable quality of some of the people at my own university who purport to be professional Oxford historians.

The British Empire lasted a very long time and was subject to many motivations, changes and events. There were also, in effect, two British empires. The first empire was indeed acquisitive and rapacious and began with the arrival of English in India in 1583 and English and Scottish settlers in North America in 1607, and ended with the American Revolution in 1776.  The second empire was constructed after 1815 and Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars, the establishment of British Crown Rule in India in 1858, and was then ‘de-constructed’ (to use academic speak) between 1947 and the late 1960s, with some remnants still extant.  The difference between the two empires was enormous mainly because Britain itself changed and evolved. Thus, the British empires are very much worthy of study, and very much worthy of study through a moral and ethical lens, and it thus very hard to see how such a ‘project’ can ask the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes.

Ultimately, the study of history is about the simple search for ‘truth’ via evidence and respectful debate designed to hone the focus of analysis on events, their causes and consequences.  Ironically, Biggar, who is not an historian, is reminding some Oxford historians that the study of history should first and foremost be conducted without fear or favour. 

Press on, Professor Biggar. Ignore this bout of politically-motivated bullying and remember, not all Oxford historians are against you.

Julian Lindley-French

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