There is something ironic about an Oxford theologian being portrayed as persecuted for arguing that Britain should be proud of its imperial past, when 59% of the population agree with him. But it’s no laughing matter.
Oxford’s Ethics and Empire project, announced last month by Prof Nigel Biggar, has drawn widespread concern from historians of all stripes. And, as expected, it attracted some fierce criticism from academics. An open letter from 58 Oxford scholars of empire registered disagreement with the project’s aims and preconceptions. I was its principal author. Co-signatories included world-renowned professors and younger researchers doing cutting-edge work in the field.
Britain does need a public debate about the realities and legacies of its imperial past
Predictably, the subsequent media furore ignored the issues at stake. We were attacked for denying freedom of expression to views we oppose – when in fact we expressly affirmed it – or for holding “unbalanced”, prejudiced views of the history we have spent our professional lives studying.
It’s unsurprising that once again, “experts” who argue from evidence against the national-populist mood should be vilified in the rightwing press. It’s also dangerous, and not only for universities, to dismiss critical history in favour of a rehabilitation of imperialism as a morally justifiable enterprise, serving a sense of national pride. Equally unhelpful is the assertion that if we’re not proud of the empire, we must feel guilty about it. History is not about how people feel.
For 40 years, scholars of empire have reassessed and reinterpreted what imperial rule, colonial settlement, conquest, administration, and decolonisation have meant in different periods across the world. Empires have been nearly ubiquitous in history, much older than nations. Colonial empires provided the matrix of the modern world in the 19th century, and their effects still influence the shape of the world and the division of privilege across it today.
To evaluate so complex a process by moral measurement – how much suffering was offset by how much “progress”? – is, for most historians, irrelevant as well as inadequate. Equally inadequate and irrelevant is the preoccupation – almost an obsession for the Brexit-Britain right – with the role of empire in an integrating “island story” of plucky white British patriots and globalisers. Even at the height of the Victorian empire, some figures who are now held up by empire nostalgics as inviolable national icons, most notably Cecil Rhodes, were criticised by their compatriots as acting more in their own than in the national interest. When Rhodes, already censured by a parliamentary select committee, was proposed for an honorary degree at Oxford in 1899, there was vocal protest from 92 academics (none of whom were Corbynistas.)
Britain, like France, the United States, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy, does need a public debate about the realities and legacies of its imperial past. We need a fuller public understanding of what Britain’s empire was, and how its aftereffects have influenced Britain’s multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society, its inequalities and injustices as well as its commonalities and opportunities.
That debate should be equitable, rational and based on all the available evidence. It should not be about apportioning blame, instilling guilt or recovering pride. We also need to see that history as part of a larger, longer, global history of empire, not as something peculiar to us. It’s important in understanding our collective present that we know what forces shaped it. But historical understanding is about recapturing the sense of things done by, and done to, other people at other times. It’s not about us, and how we feel about it is entirely irrelevant.
• James McDougall is associate professor, fellow and tutor in modern history at Trinity College, Oxford