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It was early December 2017 and my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Germany. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I could not resist checking my email just one last time. My attention sharpened when I saw a message in my inbox from the University of Oxford’s Public Affairs Directorate. I clicked on it. What I found was notification that my “Ethics and Empire” project had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students, followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my right to run such a thing. 

So began a public row that raged for the best part of a month. Four days after I flew, the eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me, John Darwin, abruptly resigned. Within a week of the first online denunciation, two further ones appeared, this time manned by professional academics, the first comprising fifty-eight colleagues at Oxford, the second, about two hundred academics from around the world. For over a fortnight, my name was in the press every day. 

What had I done to deserve all this unexpected attention? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016 I had offered a partial defence of the late-nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford. Then, second, in late November 2017, I published a column in The Times newspaper, in which I referred approvingly to Bruce Gilley’s controversial article “The Case for Colonialism”, and argued that the British (along with Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders) have reason to feel pride as well as shame about their imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I finally got around to publishing an online account of the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project, whose first conference had in fact been held the previous July. It was this last item that lit the fuse, when, reacting to it, a Cambridge academic, Dr (now Professor) Priyamvada Gopal, tweeted to her political allies at 0845 on 13 December, “OMG. This is serious shit … We need to SHUT THIS DOWN”.

Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, this project is not designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, its purpose is to select and analyse evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, in order to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically. A classic instance of such an evaluation is St Augustine’s The City of God, the early-fifth-century ad defence of Christianity, which involves a generally critical reading of the Roman Empire.

Nonetheless, “Ethics and Empire”, aware that the imperial form of political organisation was common across the world and throughout history until 1945, does not assume that empire is always and everywhere wicked, and does assume that the history of empires should inform – positively, as well as negatively – the foreign policy of Western states today on at least three issues.

First, recent interventions by Western powers in the affairs of other sovereign states, ostensibly to replace despotic regimes with constitutional and democratic polities, have been highly controversial, attracting the charge of “liberal imperialism”. These controversies have reprised many of the issues raised by, say, British imperial activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the moral responsibility of global powers to defend and promote “humane” values and to maintain or impose peace in faraway parts of the world, the right of peoples to determine their own political life, and the contradictory combination of democratic demand to “do something” about the plight of oppressed peoples with democratic reluctance to pay the necessary costs. Contemporary discussion is shaped, and sometimes distorted, by assumptions about “empire” and ‘imperialism”.

Second, Western liberal states, not least in Europe, continue to grapple with social, legal, and political tensions generated by the co-existence in a single polity of significantly different cultures. On the one hand policies of assimilation and integration have been denounced as racist and oppressive, while on the other hand laissez-faire, multicultural tolerance stands accused of presiding over de facto segregation, the violation of the rights of women, and the growth of jihadism. Multinational and multicultural empires faced the same problems, attracted the same criticisms, and developed a variety of policies in response. Reflection on their experience might augment current wisdom.

Third, whether the First Nations in Canada, the Caricom [Slavery] Reparations Commission, those demanding the redistribution of land in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Greeks lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles, or Oxford students chanting “Rhodes Must Fall”, (some of) the descendants of the subjects of empire are now claiming restitution or compensation for alleged imperial crimes. This raises complicated questions of rights and responsibility: Do aboriginal peoples have a right to cultural immunity from “modernity” (Canada), or do they have a right to full participation in “modernity” (South Africa)? If contemporary British Government is responsible for the effects of slavery almost two centuries after its abolition, how is that responsibility to be shared with the descendants of the Africans who profited from selling their own people to the slave-traders?

Happily, the academic attempt at repression back in 2017 failed. In spite of a boycott by Oxford’s Centre for Global History—which still continues—“Ethics & Empire” acquired a fresh set of historian-collaborators. It has since held four conferences involving over sixty historians, classicists, medievalists, biblical, Jewish, and Islamic scholars, political scientists, and Christian ethicists, drawn from universities in the UK, Europe, and the US. Its final meeting will take place in June.

What are its achievements? Three things. In due course, some of its proceedings will be published. Already, it has contributed to my own book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, which became a UK bestseller shortly after it was published on 2 February, demonstrating that there is a large public appetite for a balanced account of things colonial. And last but not least, it has kept alive a forum for liberal discussion of a very important political phenomenon, preserving civil dialogue from the aggression of “anti-colonialist” ideologues desperate to keep their prejudices undisturbed.

Nigel Biggar is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford, director of the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project, and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (William Collins, 2023) 

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  1. Dr Biggar’s book is brave and brilliant. Everyone should read it — and Jeremy Black’s book on colonialism — to be well informed, have both sides of the debate, and gain perspective in a time of split-second assessments of a very complicated matter.

  2. Further thought:

    On July 10, 1833, Lord Macaulay stated in a speech before British Parliament, “There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. That empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.”
    Even if unintentionally, an empire exports its laws and morals around the world.

    And look what the UK & US is exporting around the world today! It is the very depth of corruption and a plague of evil!