The frightening denunciation of a nuanced view of Britain’s colonial history

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.




Jenni Murray and the liberal bigots

Yet another storm has been whipped up by supposed liberals over alleged ‘transphobic’ comments made by the broadcaster Jenni Murray in an article for the The Sunday Times.  

Murray, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, wrote in her piece – which was entitled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a real woman” – that transgender women who have previously lived as men “with all the privilege that entails”, have not experienced growing up female and are therefore not “real women”.

This piece isn’t about the ins and outs of what she wrote, nor does it intend to delve into transgender issues. However, the hysteria that has arisen is a little over the top. Murray’s lengthy article delved into the subject of transgenderism quite extensively, and she was at pains to denounce the likes of Germaine Greer for her abrasive comments on the same subject.

Yet, as is increasingly the case in this climate of illiberal intolerance, Murray’s view was seized on by other parts of the media, with India Willoughby, a news presenter and transgender woman, calling for Murray – who had referred to Willoughby in her piece – to be sacked from her role as the presenter of Women’s Hour.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Willoughby said, “honestly, I wouldn’t wish being trans on anyone, even Jenni. ‘Male privilege’ was never a privilege to me and is not something I benefited from.

“The fact that she’s still allowed to host Woman’s Hour while spouting this bile is ridiculous and she should finally be sacked”.

Indeed, the BBC has since said that it has reminded Murray of her responsibility to maintain an impartial view on controversial topics, despite the fact that Murray aired her views in an entirely separate publication and medium.

Further, students at Oxford, playing up to the now well-worn stereotype of intolerance that has become a common feature of student politics, have called for Murray to be uninvited from speaking about feminism and women’s history at the Oxford literary festival.

Their bizarre logic seems to be that Murray’s views on transgender issues invalidate her opinion on any other subject, and so she should be cast out into the imagined wilderness into which all deplorables who do not hold a certain set of opinions would ideally be sent.

Rachel Cohen, the executive director at Stonewall, went further, and said that Murray had no right to even question someone else’s identity.

“Whether you are trans or not, your identity is yours alone. I do not question your identity Jenni, and in return, I wouldn’t expect you to question mine – or anyone else’s. What right would you have to do so?”

Here, Cohen seems to forget that Murray and everyone else has a right to question whatever they like.

Similarly, Murray’s view wasn’t that people such as Willoughby do not have ‘the right’ to call themselves women, but that just because they say that they identify as a woman, or ‘feel like’ a woman, it doesn’t mean that they are a woman.

You could of course fire back that if you genuinely feel like a woman (or a man), then you are a woman, and you would be perfectly free to express that view, but it wouldn’t make you indisputably correct.

There is a distinct danger here that the sphere of tolerance, which I have written about in previous posts, will be further narrowed if people like Murray are silenced.

Bigotry is a disease suffered by all ideologies, but increasingly it is tsupposed liberals which suffer from it most acutely.

We need to re-discover tolerance in its genuine form, Murray has the right to say whatever she likes, and if people don’t like it, they should explain why with facts and reason, instead of resorting to shutting down the debate in order to be protected from offence.