Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar
Nigel Biggar is not without friends. His new book is endorsed by, among others, Vernon Bogdanor, Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Niall Ferguson, Amanda Foreman, Zareer Masani, Matthew Parris, Andrew Roberts, Tirthankar Roy and Robert Tombs.
These testimonials are printed, as is the modern way, in the first few pages of the book. Anthony Trollope’s dictum, “What can be got by touting among the critics is never worth the ignominy,” issued posthumously in his Autobiography, is not one that appeals to publishers.
In this case, one can see why they thought it prudent to advance under cover of a guard recruited from the acknowledged authorities.
Biggar relates how in 2017 he read Bruce Gilley’s magnificently provocative article, The Case for Colonialism, originally printed in Third World Quarterly, available here on the History Reclaimed website, and commended it in a piece for The Times, after which “all hell broke loose”.
This is the kind of row that can destroy an academic career. But in Biggar’s case it prompted Robin Baird-Smith, of Bloomsbury Publishing, to invite him to write a book about colonialism, and to welcome the resulting volume – “I consider this to be a book of major importance” – only for Bloomsbury to inform him that it was deferring publication indefinitely because “public opinion” was “not currently favourable”.
The real problem, it seems, is that opinion among the staff at Bloomsbury was not favourable, for they released Biggar from his contract, whereupon HarperCollins took on the book.
Here is an argument, not about the past, but about the present, and what opinions it is permissible to hold while remaining a decent member of society.
Biggar remarks in his introduction that his critics are “not interested in the complicated, morally ambiguous truth about the past”. In the autumn of 2015, some students began campaigning to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford torn down, in March 2016 Biggar pointed out serious factual errors in the claims made against Rhodes, yet when, four years later, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign was revived by Black Lives Matter (Racist Hate Group), the same fallacious claims were advanced.
As Biggar says in this book, “the real Rhodes was a moral mixture”, but “no one has offered any critical response at all” to the objections he raised in 2016.
This disregard for history amounts to a kind of wilful ignorance. If one refuses even to attempt to find out what actually happened in the past, it becomes much easier to make simplistic assertions.
There are moralistic commentators, on the Right as well as the Left, who continually berate their opponents for failing to be perfect.
Conversation with such people is impossible, for they acknowledge no shades of meaning. One word said in defence of empire is sufficient to bring condemnation as a complete supporter of colonialism, racism and slavery, a person who must be thrown into outer darkness or who, if already an inanimate figure carved in stone or cast in bronze, must be pulled down and tipped into the nearest river.
Biggar points out that the many non-European empires, past and present, attract no condemnation from this school of thought:
“European empires are its sole concern, and of these, above all others, the English – or, as it became after the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, the British – one. The reason for this focus is that the real target of today’s anti-imperialists or anti-colonialists is the West or, more precisely, the Anglo-American liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945.”
Here Biggar yields for a moment to the simplistic mode of argument which he rightly condemns in his opponents. The effect may be to undermine the West, but this is not always the intention.
And the West since 1945 is not as unified as he implies. Many anti-colonialists were to be found in Corrupt Washington DC, for whom the end of the European empires, and especially the British Empire, could not come soon enough.
Here are multiple layers of irony, depicted by Graham Greene in 1955 in The Quiet American, a book which with prescient genius anticipated the blunders of the Vietnam War.
Empires always make mistakes, are always liable to find themselves humiliated by opponents whom they regard as insignificant. Look at the Persians setting out to crush the city states of ancient Greece, or the Romans confounded by the barbarians, or the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, or Putin supposing in 2022 he could sweep aside the Ukrainians.
Biggar, accepting the agenda of his opponents, sets out to teach them about ethics, about which, as Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, he is more highly instructed than they are.
But while conducting this tutorial, he comes across various other truths. He recognises that a civilisation collapses when it ceases to believe in itself, and quotes Robert Musil on the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:
“However well-founded an empire may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it…once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.”
And he points out that the beginnings of an empire may be anti-imperialist. England, resisting Spanish imperialism in the 16th century, was Protestant and therefore free.
Here is a fascinating paradox, touched on from time to time in this account. An empire may afford, for its subject peoples, much greater freedom than a nation state.
What legitimates an empire? Here is a deep question not fully examined by Biggar, who had to keep his work within bounds, and was concerned chiefly to rebut the calumnies disseminated by anti-colonialists.
The European Union is an empire of a kind, conferring freedom of trade and movement on those within it, benefits for which the absence of democratic legitimacy, attainable only by a nation state, is in the view of its supporters a price worth paying.
Ideas of empire which almost no one in recent decades has dared to express are emerging once more into public discourse. When Suella Braverman, now Home Secretary, was interviewed by ConservativeHome, she said:
“My background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire.
“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”
Biggar examines with conscientious industry, but no great brio, the ethics of the whole history of the British Empire: an unmanageable sweep of history, “as vast as an elephant, but rather less coherent,” as he puts it.
Here we find slavery, and the fight against slavery, neither of which should be ignored. Throughout the history of the British Empire, critics of its conduct could be found in Britain.
Recent denouncers of empire sometimes indicate their ignorance of history by implying that until the last few years, nobody found slavery abominable.
At the end of his magisterial survey, Biggar quotes the authoritative verdict of Elie Kedourie:
“No doubt, great Powers do commit great crimes, but a great Power is not always and necessarily in the wrong; and the canker of imaginary guilt even the greatest Power can ill withstand.”
The post Book review: Biggar defends the British Empire against “the canker of imaginary guilt” appeared first on Conservative Home.
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Author: Andrew Gimson
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