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Paul Vallely: Free inquiry should not be suppressed

18 June 2021

. . . even when it examines Britain’s colonial history, argues Paul Vallely

University of Oxford

Canon Nigel Biggar

Canon Nigel Biggar

I WAS pleased to see that Canon Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral Theology in the University of Oxford, was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Of course, it might be in recognition of his interesting work on proportionality in the ethics of war. But it is more likely — given the propensity of Boris Johnson to use culture wars as a political diversion from the problems of the pandemic — that it is to do with Professor Biggar’s resistance to the campaign by critics who want to silence his research into the legacy of the British Empire.

Professor Biggar has advanced the apparently controversial proposition that it is worth examining the detailed history of British colonialism to discover whether it did any good alongside the harm that it inflicted on exploited African and Asian peoples. Once, the ethics of empire might have seemed an uncontentious area of investigation, but the subject has become inexorably bound up with contemporary debates on racism and white supremacy. There is a prevailing orthodoxy, he says, that empire is always and everywhere wicked.

His academic critics have condemned him in a letter for a “balance sheet” approach to empire, which “is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits”. They object to apologists who say that Britain abolished slavery before America did, so that’s OK then.

The trouble is that this is not what Professor Biggar says. Indeed, he pointedly eschews “crude utilitarian analyses”. Such a cost-benefit approach is merely prejudice masquerading as mathematics. Wherever the truth lies in this debate — and it is almost certainly more nuanced than soundbites on Twitter can permit — there is something alarming about the idea of his fellow academics’ wanting to suppress free inquiry.

Among those quoted by Professor Biggar in defence of his project is the 20th-century historian Elie Kedourie, who courted controversy in the 1960s by suggesting that the British Empire was a positive institution whose decline brought disaster to many former colonies. He attacked what he called the “Chatham House version” of events, which saw the recent history of the modern Middle East as one of continuous victimisation by the West.

Professor Kedourie was an Iraqi Jew who saw the civil peace of the Ottoman Empire give way to an intolerant Arab nationalism after the First World War. European-style nationalism, he believed, turned people who had once lived together in harmony into enemies, and fostered one-party dictatorship and a totalitarian mindset. He also castigated British historians, along with Lawrence of Arabia, for a naively romantic view of Islam, which ultimately paved the way for Islamic fundamentalism. The British Establishment must have come to regret not listening to his lonely voice.

One of the lessons of history is that no era has a perfect comprehension of either the past or the future to which it gives way. Judging the past by the standards of the present may make us feel good, but it does not further understanding. An intolerance of opposing views, fuelled by the vitriol of social media, is the antithesis of intellectual debate. Bad ideas are best countered by good arguments, not ideological conformism.

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