“This house would restore the British Empire.” King’s College London’s Conservative Association proposed this debate topic for a “Port and Policy” event earlier this year. Leading Brexiteers were saying much the same thing a few years ago, using euphemisms like the Anglosphere, CANZUK, and Global Britain to gin up enthusiasm for the glory days of empire. But with Britain demonstrably poorer, weaker, and more divided than it was before Brexit, and with Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and the campaign to decolonize museums and curricula exposing the empire’s ugly underbelly, one has to wonder whether these young King’s College Tories’ policy prescription is derived from too much port.
Still, others share their fondness for empire. Nigel Biggar, Oxford University’s Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology and Director of the McDonald Centre (funded by an American religious foundation), has made it his mission in recent years to restore Britons’ pride in their imperial past. He first drew public attention as a leading critic of the campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from its Oriel College niche. Soon thereafter he announced that the McDonald Centre would launch a six-year “Ethics and Empire” project, designed to develop a “Christian ethic of empire.” He revealed his intent in a Times op-ed: “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history.” Now, with the McDonald project coming to a close, Biggar has published a manifesto on the subject, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
Before turning to Colonialism, we should take note of Biggar’s public persona. A frequent commentator for The Times, The Telegraph, and other conservative news outlets, Biggar has become a prominent culture warrior, quick to comment on the day’s hot-button issues. Stopping illegal immigrants from crossing the English Channel? There’s “nothing un-Christian” about that. Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece? A misguided demonstration of “colonial guilt.” Removing a Jesus College chapel plaque memorializing an investor in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company? “Cancel culture.” Like many culture warriors, Biggar casts himself as a victim of persecution. He crusades “against thought police” who supposedly tyrannize university campuses, complaining that there is a “climate of fear at Oxford” and that Cambridge discriminates “against white, conservative men.” Coming from a Regius professor who oversees his own academic center and freely voices his views in major news outlets, these complaints might strike some Brits as whingeing. But they are catnip for the Right. Not surprisingly, “a host of genial, approving Tories” attended the Oxford launch of his book, including Michael Gove (currently Secretary of State for—I kid you not—Leveling Up) , former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, and Danny Kruger, MP.
What Colonialism offers those “approving Tories” is an unbridled defense of the British Empire. Others have argued that the empire brought with it a range of benefits—the formation of an international order, the growth of global trade, the spread of modern medicine and technology, the introduction of law and order, and so on. Niall Ferguson explicitly cast the British Empire’s benefits in moral terms, declaring them “a good thing.” But no one matches the unabashed zeal with which Biggar, waving his Anglican credentials in “moral theology,” makes the ethical case for empire. In thematically organized chapters, he sets about scrubbing away the moral stains that have sullied Britain’s imperial past. Slavery and the slave trade? Everybody did it, but the British at least made “imperial penance” with abolition and the anti-slaving naval patrols. Racism? The British rarely embraced biological racism; instead, they simply viewed their own culture as superior, which was perfectly reasonable. Genocide? “Mistakes were made,” but most victims succumbed to disease, not organized slaughter; hence there was no “genocide in the proper sense” (i.e. the Holocaust). Conquest and land expropriation? The absence of international law meant that land was up for grabs, and “whether a people are morally justified in refusing to develop land [that old Lockean chestnut] is an ethical question that does not command a simple answer.” Economic exploitation? Lots of colonial subjects prospered under British rule, and—here’s that waffle language again—"when economic activity becomes ‘exploitative’ does not command a straight-forward answer.” National self-determination? Colonial rule may have been autocratic, but ignorant voters make bad choices, and, besides, nationalists used violence to advance their objectives. Speaking of violence, what about those imperial wars? Biggar, who has written In Defence of War (2013), examines British conduct in the first Opium War, the Indian Mutiny, the Amritsar massacre, the Benin expedition, the second Anglo-Boer War, and the Mau Mau emergency, and—lo and behold—he finds that only the Opium War was entirely unjustified. This is not historical analysis; it is solipsistic advocacy.
"Colonialism won't win over many historians, but it isn't meant to."
What makes Biggar’s book even worse is its sophistry. He begins by observing that the British Empire was part of a world of empires, so it shouldn’t be singled out for criticism. Except he goes on to argue it was exceptional, introducing the modern “liberal international order.” He professes to believe in “universal moral principles” that transcend time and place, then proceeds to argue that those involved in, say, the slave trade can’t be judged by our moral standards. He insists that we measure the men who ruled the empire by their intentions (which were invariably noble and “pure”), not their results (when obstreperous colonial subjects got in the way). And we shouldn’t be too hard on those who weren’t up to snuff; instead, we must show “forgiveness for [their] honest error and tragic failure.” This is “a moral reckoning”?
On one point, however, he’s absolutely correct: “the controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past.” For Biggar, what’s at stake in this controversy is “the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today,” which he believes is under assault from “anti-colonialists.” Exactly who these anti-colonialists are or why their objections to Britain’s colonial past pose such a dire threat to its postcolonial present isn’t clear, but Biggar insists that their “dogmatic revolutionary authoritarianism” aligns them with Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China. They are aided and abetted by academic historians, who consider “anti-colonialism… fashionable” and possess “no special endowment of moral courage.” What Biggar counts as moral courage is agreement with his own view that the purpose of history is to promote pride in Britain’s imperial past and prevent anti-colonial sentiments from spreading.
Colonialism won’t win over many historians, but it isn’t meant to. Its target audience is right-wing ideologues, whose grievances and opinions it both echoes and enhances. Those King’s College Conservatives who are eager to “restore” the empire will find it tailor-made for their purposes.
Note: Since the American edition will not appear until May this piece quotes from the unpaginated Kindle edition.
Dane Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at George Washington University. His most recent book is The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire (Bloomsbury, 2018).
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