Back in November, Professor Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, wrote an article in The Times newspaper, arguing for a nuanced analysis of Britain’s colonial past.
Biggar’s article provoked the expected reaction from the Twitterati; the kind of critical murmurings that Biggar himself would have been anticipating.
However, what is more concerning was the reaction of much of the faculty at Oxford. 58 of his colleagues signed an open letter which denounced his article. They wrote that it would, “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 imperial past.”
From what I could gather, none of Biggar’s article was ‘celebratory’. On the contrary, in advocating nuance, Biggar was himself very careful in the way he presented his argument; as all scholars should be.
Yet, somehow, that passed his colleagues by, and they seemed more concerned with ensuring that their signatures were on the ‘right side of history’ than in ensuring they adhered to proper academic standards.
Surely it goes without saying that there is more to the study of the British Empire than, ‘it was all terrible and we should apologise for it forever’?
As Daniel Hannan adeptly argues in a piece for The Telegraph, the British Empire was one among many. In that respect, it was on a sliding scale in terms of the good, and in terms of the bad. There were others which left a worse legacy and committed more misdeeds.
Equally, at least some aspects of Britain’s colonial legacy must be positive? To deny that is simply to brazenly pitch oneself against historical reality.
More concerning is the worrying indication that even dozens of members of the faculty of one of the best universities in the world are prepared to submit to a one-sided denunciation in order to look good.
Yet, there is still hope for the values of free speech and critical enquiry.
The Times reported three days ago that some of Biggar’s colleagues were prepared to stand up for him.
In a letter to the newspaper, Alexander Morrison – a prominent scholar – wrote, ‘Hostile open letters of this kind are not the way to deal with academic disagreement: they are deeply corrosive of normal academic exchange, and simply encourage more of the online mobbing, public shaming and political polarisation which have sadly characterised this debate from the outset.’
So, no. Biggar shouldn’t be removed, as has been suggested, as the head of a forthcoming research project – Ethics and Empire – looking in part at Britain’s colonial history.
Instead, free and open discussion should be facilitated on subjects like this. Perhaps one of those critical academics should write their own article where – rather than arguing for Biggar’s silencing – they lay out a reasoned argument.
You know, like members of the supposedly free society we live in.