Biggar, Empire and Academia

Nigel Biggar is Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford. However, many fellow academics regard him as a wicked reactionary. That is reason enough to read his latest book, Colonialism: a moral reckoning. I have just finished it;  I thoroughly recommend it.

The dust jacket cites commendations from historians like Professor Robert Tombs and Dr Zareer Masani, while Times Columnist, Matthew Parris states this:

As a not un-critical child of empire, I think his assessment is fair and accurate

“Fair and accurate” – words in desperate need of revival today.

Professor Biggar earns such praise by his impressive demonstration of courage and intellectual prowess in Colonialism a moral reckoning. There, he tackles head on the indictments of Empire made by progressive ideologues in academia. Biggar rehearses and analyses the evidence from both sides to paint a more realistic picture of the past than that promoted by today’s Ideologues with a political agenda.  In my view, there are leading figures in the faculty of history at Oxford today who should learn from Professor Biggar’s approach and honest realism …

For one thing, Professor Biggar starts with the perspective of the past as seen through the eyes of the players involved; he does not start with contemporary political prejudice against the concept and practice of empire. He therefore starts with reality, not today’s Manichaean, simplistic, absolutist moral rectitude. He is manifestly concerned for what actually happened and why; he is not looking to find evidence to support his preconceived view of the world – witness his clear avowal of horrors like Amritsar and Mau-Mau Kenya.

What also stands out for me is that Biggar can take the broad sweep of the historical evidence and explain that diverse evidence coherently. He achieves this because he takes his line from the evidence, not from contemporary fashions in ideology. To take just one simple but serious example, the British Empire exploited slavery and yet it also actively sought to destroy slavery: quite simply the second 150 years contrasts with the first 150 years.  And it contrasts because British government  insisted on the primacy of moral imperative in imperial affairs – so the Royal Navy actively and systematically put down the slave trade. This strategic fact is wilfully ignored in the world of woke today because it contradicts the pre-set moral mindset derived from anti-academic techniques like critical race theory.

I find Professor Biggar’s prose style to be in the best tradition of Oxford dons – precise, logical, fluent, clear and simple; it is  not pretentious, contorted, or convoluted like much that is written in academia today.

And I like his personal touch; he opens the book with his own painful experiences, and he reveals that a major publishing company cancelled its contract to publish Colonialism. I like too that he is up front and crystal clear about his own personal beliefs and values. He is not afraid to own his position; nor indeed is he afraid to tackle the shallow and illogical thinking of his opponents. Note I say tackle their thinking; he does not attack the person ! This contrasts with many opponents who default to the sly and sloppy device of insulting the man sooner than engage with the evidence and argument; of course, to engage with him would be to accept a paradigm which they reject out of hand. Or, perhaps, because they cannot answer him ! Where he takes them on, he demolishes their view for the simple reason that their thinking and their evidence do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

I especially like Biggar’s clear and straightforward grasp of what history is. It is traditional and simple: it treats history as the narrative of past events leading to the present – the chronological narrative. On page 17 he states that Colonialism is not a history because “the book is not ordered chronologically”. Instead, he says, the book is “a moral evaluation”.

Yes, the book does indeed make “a moral reckoning”.  But in order to make a moral reckoning of historical events and evidence, and in order to make a moral reckoning of the assertions of academics and historians about a historical phenomenon like the British Empire, Biggar necessarily examines the historical record and the historiography. Indeed, he provides a very effective “framework of a bare chronology” in section VII of the Introduction. He appears in fact to be writing a history of the British Empire because recent historiography is just so bad !

I suspect such coyness about behaving like a historian has something to do with the treatment he has received from dozens of the More Enlightened professional historians at the University of Oxford in letters to the London Times. From that platform, they have criticised Professor Biggar for trespassing on their patch of academic study, asserting from their own sense of moral and intellectual superiority that historians don’t make moral judgements on the past … Well, evidently they do because a moral theologian has had to take many of them to task for doing just that with the history of the British Empire. Indeed Professor Biggar examines this very question of moral viewpoint in historiography in section IV of his Introduction.

I also question the title of the book. Colonialism is not in fact a book assessing all empires and colonisation throughout history; it is specifically about the British Empire over some 3 centuries. Again, this has something to do with today’s context: Biggar is using the British Empire and its historiography to counter-attack the dangerous assaults on the historical record by progressive minded intellectuals. He is taking on the anti-colonial lobby. That presumably explains the less than 100% accuracy of the title. Indeed, he himself explains that there is a distinction between empire and colonisation in section V of his Introduction.

I must raise too the question of Biggar’s assumptions. He accurately analyses and exposes the failure of the anti-colonial lobby to examine their axiomatic assertions – there is a notable example in section VI of chapter 8, where he tackles the view of Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology in the University of Oxford and curator of the prestigious Pitt Rivers Museum. There Biggar exposes Hick’s use of abstractions like “militarism”, “racism” and “proto-fascism” to define colonialism. Biggar observes: “None are explained or justified. They are taken as axiomatic”.

But Nigel Biggar doesn’t really examine and explain his own political and moral assumptions about the moral superiority of the western world’s liberal values, either. He assumes their superiority. In his defence I will say that he implictly explains by reference to specifics like the suppression of sati in India and of slavery. Indeed, most people reading his book will broadly agree his assumptions about the western world’s liberal, rules based order because they understand what those terms mean. All the same, there is a certain deficit here which I identify in order to make my main criticism now.

Professor Biggar is deploying this much needed thesis, perspective and analysis because he is an apologist for today’s Western dominance of the global world order. He wants to bolster morale for the battle against Russian authoritarianism and Chinese totalitarianism. He is concerned, too, about the disintegration of the United Kingdom – see section 2 of the Introduction.

But the threat to our western civilisation today does not come primarily from Russia or China. It comes from within – it comes from the corruption engendered by greed at the highest levels of the most powerful western corporations and governments; it comes from the corruption of public life by the assault on public values and morals by hyper libertarianism and crass consumerism; it comes from a religious fanaticism which believes in heaven on earth courtesy of a new world order of woke. It is the fruit of the very “Liberal Democracy” Professor Biggar is concerned to preserve. It comes from what Edmund Burke described as “the spirit of atheistical fanaticism”. As an expert on Burke, Professor Biggar knows this. ##

Our problems in the West today arise from the “liberal democracy” which Professor Biggar wants to defend against authoritarianism and totalitarianism. That “liberal democracy” has spawned a woke variant of totalitarianism and illiberal intolerance. Today’s West espouses demeaning Materialism and its associated aggressive, Godless Atheism. We have eradicated the Christian culture which distinguished western civilsation. We have lost the “Christian democracy” which obtained in the later stages of the British Empire.

Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, Yoram Hazony explains this cultural revolution in chapter 6 of his “Conservatism: a Rediscovery“. The first section of the chapter is titled: From Christian Democracy to Liberal Democracy.  There Hazony explains the critical distinction between pre Second World War Christian democracy and post Second World War Liberal democracy. Professor Biggar knows about the post war development of an insidious Rights culture – he explains it in his last book, “What’s Wrong with Rights?”  Why then does Professor Biggar not espouse “Christian democracy” against the “liberal democracy” which has spawned the very problems in academia to which he, quite rightly, objects  ?


# #  I identify this vital but overlooked assertion by Edmund Burke at paragraph 251 in my edition of his Reflections on the Revolution in France

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