Oxford’s famous Sheldonian Theatre hosted two fascinating lectures this term. The first was delivered by an Emeritus Regius Professor while the other was delivered by the Prime Minister of a European Union member State. The subject matter of both lectures was political. The first was delivered by a self identified Burkean Conservative, while the other was given by a practising politician fundamentally committed to what he identifies as “liberal democracy”.
So what is the problem ?
Answer: the prejudiced treatment accorded to these lecturers by the administrative authorities at Oxford.
Irish Prime Minister, Michael Martin, was invited by the outgoing Vice Chancellor to deliver the annual Romanes lecture. The lecture provided an opportunity for Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, to make a political statement before she leaves next month. The lecture was – of course – promoted by the University on its website and recorded on its video streaming channel. The lecture was titled, ‘The Centre Will Hold: Liberal Democracy and the Populist Threat’.
Such promotion was not extended to Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford, Nigel Biggar – even though his lecture was a pertinent and coherent analysis citing solid evidence for his thesis. His lecture was not deemed worthy of any mention in the headline “News” or “Events” pages of the University’s main website . Why ?
Professor Biggar’s lecture challenged the evident shortcomings of today’s progressive thinking in academia on race and colonialism. It was titled, ‘Deconstructing decolonisation’. While it was indeed advertised on the Sheldonian’s page of the university website, the video link of the his lecture is not available; so, I will provide you with the evidence of my assertions about Professor Biggar’s lecture – you can find it here !
We know that Professor Biggar’s views are anathema to political Orthodoxy in the Humanities at Oxford because much of the Faculty of History in the University wrote to the Times in 2017 to distance themselves from his research into Colonialism. This problem of political prejudice at Oxford appears to continue: I could find not one single video of a Nigel Biggar lecture on the University’s You Tube channel.
Professor Biggar is, however, an exemplary scholar. That is evident in the lecture he gave this term in the Sheldonian as part of this year’s Memorial lectures in honour of Sir Roger Scruton, the celebrated Philosopher – link cited above. For any one in doubt, a mountain of evidence for Biggar’s competence is provided in his 2020 book, “What’s Wrong with Rights?”. The opening sentence in that book is telling. Biggar writes:
I did not know the answers when I began this book, but I did know some of the questions.
Given such a degree of willingness to go where the evidence leads, we are forced then to ask why so many academics at Oxford have a problem with Professor Biggar ?
A clue to their mentality is provided by
- the choice of Micheal Martin as the Romanes lecturer this year;
- the title of his lecture;
- what he had to say; and
- the terms in which he said it.
The title of Mr Martin’s speech was “The Centre will hold: Liberal Democracy and the Populist Threat”. It assumes that his viewpoint is shared by all reasonable people. Indeed, his preconceptions are so axiomatic, Mr Martin saw no need to examine them. He simply assumed that his audience knows where the “Centre” of politics lies; what “populism” is; that populism is a “threat”; and that “liberal democracy” is under seige.
Mr Martin did say that Liberal democracy is a set of values characterised by freedom, democracy, equality, diversity and inclusion. Well, fine; but everyone knows that the words “diversity” and “inclusion” are employed routinely by those with a particular worldview. That worldview promotes “Human Rights” in a way which privileges certain rights over all other rights and over all other legitimate and practical considerations. That worldview is itself a philosophy which Professor Biggar identifies as “Rights Fundamentalism” in his book, “What’s wrong with Rights?”.
My concern about Mr Martin’s worldview is amply justified by the content of his Romanes lecture. “Populism” is “authoritarian” and exploits certain issues which are a self evident threat to “liberal democracy”.
So, what are these problematical issues ?
They are, according to Mr Martin:
- questioning the validity of the European Union
- questioning the validity of Covid 19 vaccination
- questioning the EU’s handling of illegal immigration
Now, I always understood that it is a basic function of university research to question worldviews and hypotheses and to posit answers. However Mr Martin tells us that it is extreme and dangerous to question what he regards as axiomatic.
If we accept Mr Martin’s logic, then universities should become propagandists of current political Orthodoxy.
Worse still, it becomes clear during Mr Martin’s speech that his use of the words liberal, democracy, equality, diversity and inclusion is at odds with the plain meaning of those words. So,
- Diversity of opinion about Europe, vaccination or immigration;
- equal treatment of those with such different views; and
- the inclusion of those dissenting views in the debate going forward
are all viewed by Mr Martin as evidence of an extreme and authoritarian threat to liberal democracy, ipso facto.
He tells us that the Brexit vote was “a tragic error”. And of course sensible people learn from their mistakes and put them right. It is very clear indeed that Mr Martin does not view Brexit as a democratic decision which should now re-determine the parameters of politics in a liberal democracy like the United Kingdom. Nor is there is anything for the EU to learn about why the UK voted Leave. As Mr Martin made clear, the EU is the most successful international project of democratic co-operation ever; those who question its validity are therefore deeply suspect.
The plain demonstrable, historical facts about each of these issues, however, contradict Mr Martin’s patent reinterpretation of reality.
Martin asserts that the EU has handled the immigration crisis well.
And yet after decades of crisis, the EU still has no proper working protocol and procedure for the reception and distribution of ‘asylum seekers’ among EU nations. Witness the current diplomatic confrontation between France and Italy on this issue. Whatever your point of view on this, the failure of the EU to manage this crisis is scandalous.
Mr Martin associates authoritarianism with those who question Covid vaccination, whereas the truth is the very opposite. What he blandly and curtly asserts as “public interventions” in response to Covid 19 were in reality an unprecedented peace-time usurpation of powers over the individual everyday lives of free citizens by liberal democratic governments. Such governments even resorted to setting up high level teams to implement ‘engineering of consent’ – the despicable practice first promoted by Edward Bernays, the ‘father’ of modern mass marketing and advertising.
The question must therefore be put. Will the new Vice Chancellor, Irene Tracey, take steps to eliminate political prejudice in the operations of university administration ? Will she ensure equality of treatment by the university authorities for the work of scholars like Professor Biggar ? In short, will she reject the preference for patently biased and distorted narratives about liberty, equality, diversity and inclusion in order to make unfettered academic enquiry the over-riding priority ?
Watch this space !
Nigel Biggar’s “What’s Wrong with Rights” is available here