Don’t mistake nostalgia about the British Empire for scholarship

Efforts to reclaim imperial history from so-called ‘politically correct’ professors have little to do with genuine academic debate, argue James McDougall and Kim Wagner

April 20, 2018
british empire george v

Clusters of events, historians know, are sometimes coincidences.

But sometimes they indicate something more significant: an underlying dynamic, a process of which they are symptoms.

On 8 May, The Times will host an event on “the legacy of the British Empire”, at which participants will debate whether Britain’s empire was “a force for good or a force for evil”. Last weekend, on 14 April, Radio 4 aired a programme built around a dramatised reading of the notorious 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech that made Enoch Powell, who once dreamed of becoming viceroy of India, famous. Earlier this month, The Times carried yet another column by Nigel Biggar, a theologian, ethicist of empire and defender of the "good" it did, decrying the “abuse” that he feels unsympathetic critics have directed at his work.

And in a rapid follow-up last week, the Daily Mail ran a two-page spread that denounced Biggar’s critics as a “Left-wing fifth column”, and singled out for assault Cambridge literary scholar Priyamvada Gopal. Gopal’s forthright Twitter posts served as the pretext for an extraordinarily abusive personal attack, effectively demanding that her university should silence the expression of her personal political views.

None of this is coincidence. There is a common thread running through the conservative media’s blustering about the British Empire. The Times’ event, hosted by the columnist and author of swashbuckling pop history Ben Macintyre, promises to “cut through the political correctness” to find “the real meaning” of imperial history. Biggar poses as the antagonist of a politically correct “orthodoxy”, which he has accused in his near-weekly newspaper columns of “stifling debate”.

The Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover claims that universities are sites of “cultural brainwashing” by “monochrome” leftists (who, to add to their disrepute, seem to buy their clothes from the “local charity shop”).

All claim that conservative opinions are no longer tolerated in universities and that the “real meaning” of the British Empire and its legacies, in particular, has been suppressed. None offers evidence to substantiate this claim, beyond vague references to lonely Tory dons or an alleged reticence to air unfashionable views among researchers.

None quotes from, or seems to have read, any of the scholarship they denounce, preferring to recycle a Boys’ Own ideology of empire that they mistake for historical insight. None takes the trouble to check whether the putative “orthodoxy”, in the literature or in the classroom, is in fact engaged in dialogue with other views. None seek any such dialogue: newspapers that publish Biggar and his supporters have repeatedly ignored requests for a right of reply from scholars of other persuasions.

As the finding of a recent parliamentary report, that allegations of a free speech crisis in universities are “exaggerated”, suggests, there is in fact no substance to their claims.

They are, rather, a pose, part of the wider appropriation and weaponising of “free speech advocacy” shared with other self-styled rightist provocateurs in the US and Europe.

Empire talk in Britain has become a privileged vehicle for the promotion of self-styled “provocative”, “unorthodox” opinion which in fact expresses views – about Britain, Britishness, and the place of both in the world – that were entirely orthodox, establishment and popular views 50 or more years ago.

They are provocative today only because they are offensive to contemporary sensibilities that have inherited half a century of struggles against white supremacy, racism, misogyny and imperialist jingoism.

They emanate, almost invariably, from privileged white men of a certain age and class, who see hierarchy as natural and violence as necessary for keeping order in “uncivilised” places. Their mantra of a “balanced” view of the British Empire comes down, in the Daily Mail’s phrase, to the assertion that it did a lot of good despite “the occasional massacre”.

Reappraising the British Empire in this vein has become a way in which race-thinking, if not outright racism and masculinism (The Times panel, we’re told, will examine the “men and motivations” of empire), if not misogyny, can be rehabilitated in a celebratory story that excuses occasional “excess” by evoking overall “benefit”.

The obvious historical facts that empire was a structural, not an occasional, violence – and that “our forefathers” did anything but “successfully” export democracy worldwide – are apparently just the inventions of badly dressed bolshies.

But then, none of this is really about the “real meaning” of the history of empire.

The empire-nostalgics reduce the complexity, dramatic scale and human tragedy of the past to an edifying morality tale of good intentions, a reckoning-up of Good and Bad Things. They seem to have forgotten that 1066 And All That was a satire.

Talking about the past has always been a way of expressing present anxieties. In Britain, talking about empire in this way today obviously has everything to do with right-wing visions of Brexit and Britishness and little or nothing to do with the realities of the Commonwealth as it is or the empire as it ever was.

But there is also something more significant at work, a continuity that ties Enoch Powell’s rhetoric, and the reasons Radio 4 producers recognised its importance for today to the logic of this rehabilitation of the imperial project, its idioms and attitudes, and the broader moment of which it is part.

Powell’s notorious line about the descendants of the enslaved and colonised gaining “the whip hand over the white man” was an early invocation of the fantasy of white victimhood that grips today’s alt-right and feeds hostility to migration and multiculturalism.

Empire makes good press for Establishment men offended by their loss of control over definitions of taste, decency and historical truth.

Trumpeting the virtues of colonialism while the Windrush generation faces the threat of deportation is cynical and disingenuous, as well as historically illiterate. It is a small, vicious, sign of our times.

Kim Wagner is a senior lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London. James McDougall is a fellow and tutor in modern history at Trinity College, Oxford.

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Reader's comments (4)

Spot on: and worse, these Empire-apologists will drag us all into a terrible mess again. We don't want a repeat of the 19th to mid-20th Centuries...
How can Kim Wagner and James McDougall claim the high ground on historical scholarship when the best they can offer is unabashed character assassination of a colleague who dares disagree with their blanket condemnation of empire? Their diatribe illustrates precisely the sort of leftwing hysteria that’s allowing half-truths, fake facts and wildly exaggerated “atrocities” to dominate the teaching of imperial history. It’s revealing of the reverse racism involved that McDougall and Wagner have very conveniently airbrushed from their racist-white-male conspiracy theory the fact that the forthcoming Times panel on empire on 8th May will be joined by two Indians, myself as a political historian of the nationalist movement and the eminent economic historian Professor Tirthankar Roy of the LSE, who’s been debunking simplistic shibboleths about Indian de-industrialisation and drain of wealth during the Raj. Are we really “historically illiterate” for recognising that empires were once the default mode of governance worldwide and that empires, like nation states, varied enormously in their ethical standards and institutional impact? Can we really take seriously as historians those like McDougall/Wagner who want to shut down such debate and even seek to silence us by raising the absurd spectre of Powellism, blaming us for the completely unrelated coincidence of the BBC airing his “Rivers of Blood” speech? As an Indian immigrant myself and a Remain voter, I take strong exception to being tarred with the brush of Brexit and racist xenophobia. Zareer Masani (DPhil Oxford, 1976)
A little too easy perhaps to stridently pick apart some strident articles in the Daily Mail. That newspaper is not the most challenging target for an alleged critique of a modern avenue of scholarship. Wagner and McDougall point out, in a tone of regret, "None quotes from, or seems to have read, any of the scholarship they denounce". Ironic, then, that this article does not deal substantively with the scholarship it criticises, only quoting once from a single article by Professor Biggar in The Times without any effort to unpack the quotation. Surprisingly, there is also no effort to scrutinise the methodology of Biggar's Ethics and Empire project, presumably because it is easier to simply dismiss such work as the creation of "privileged white men of a certain age and class". Most quotations in this article are from single words or phrases from the page advertising The Times event "The legacy of the British Empire with Ben Macintyre". Wagner and McDougall mix up phrases from The Times website such as "real meaning" with other words and phrases in quote marks such as "uncivilised", without making it clear which are their own invention. The words "excess" and "benefit" sound like direct quotes but I was unable to locate them on the page they link. Indeed, it is rarely clear when the authors are quoting a source (and if so, which source) or simply using scare quotes to problematise certain terminology. This is sloppiness at best and misleading at worst. I admire the rhetorical nerve of the final paragraph attempting to connect modern scholarship on colonialism with the current sad problems faced by some of the Windrush generation, but I hope the authors are aware that it does not constitute an argument.
Kim Wagner and James McDougall have quite a lot to say. One of the things they do is to characterise the viewpoint that they oppose as emanating ", almost invariably, from privileged white men of a certain age and class". Now both could be said as occupying privileged positions - one at Queen Mary, University of London and one at Trinity College, Oxford. They can also both be characterised as white men, of a certain (young) age and of a certain class. So their line "almost invariably, from privileged white men of a certain age and class" applies perfectly well to themselves. And the rest of the article seems to be pure polemic and rhetoric. Is this what we can now expect from todays Academia?