End ideologues’ reign over imperial history

May 3, 2018

How can Kim Wagner and James McDougall claim the high ground on historical scholarship (“Don’t mistake nostalgia about the British Empire for scholarship” , Opinion, 26 April) when the best they can offer is unabashed character assassination of a colleague who dares to disagree with their blanket condemnation of empire? Their diatribe illustrates precisely the sort of left-wing hysteria that is allowing half-truths, fake facts and wildly exaggerated “atrocities” to dominate the teaching of imperial history.

It is revealing of the reverse racism involved that Wagner and McDougall have very conveniently airbrushed from their “racist white male” conspiracy theory the fact that the forthcoming Times panel discussion on the legacy of empire on 8 May will be joined by two Indians: myself as a political historian of the nationalist movement, and the eminent economic historian Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics, who has been debunking simplistic shibboleths about Indian deindustrialisation 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 such as Wagner and McDougall 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’s airing of 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
Broadcaster and author of biographies of Indira Gandhi and Thomas Macaulay


It is a pity that instead of addressing the serious issues raised in and through current debate on the reality and legacy of the British Empire, Kim Wagner and James McDougall should feel the need to engage instead in a semi-hysterical rant.

Last year, half the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigned following publication of an article that merely pointed to some of the arguably positive aspects of colonialism. Subsequently, some 40 academics protested in a letter to Times Higher Education (“Pro-­colonialism paper: how did it get published?”, 28 September 2017) that the offending article “should not have been published in any academic journal” because it allegedly constituted “historical revisionism for what is a crime against humanity” and that the arguments deployed therein contradicted “the origins of the journal”. And subsequent to that, the publisher of the journal announced that the offending article had been formally “withdrawn” following “serious and credible threats of personal violence” received by the journal editor.

A prime duty of any scholar is to question orthodoxy and challenge received wisdom, no matter who is offended in the process. Is it too much to expect Wagner and McDougall to defend and promote these obligations?

Geoffrey Alderman
University of Buckingham

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