Are there any conventions? The itch for academics to consider themselves important has been fired up by the Brexit controversy, and many have entered the lists. This had led to a fair amount of confusion as the standards of scholarship frequently have been thrown away by those engaging in polemic. So also with discussion about empire, both in specifics, such as the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, and in generalities.
Putting the two together is all-too tempting, and must help those with scant consequence appear relevant. Thus, we have work directly or indirectly blaming Brexit on imperial nostalgia, which must give left-wing critics of the European Union, in Britain, Greece or elsewhere, the certainty they otherwise lack. From a collected volume in this field, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), comes a particular essay of note, Richard Drayton’s ‘Biggar vs Little Britain: God, War, Union, Brexit and Empire in Twenty-first century Conservative ideology.’ Drayton presumably considers it of consequence as he has put it up in the King’s Research Portal. Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London, Drayton has been an active participant in the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign and it is fair to say that his tone is clear cut. Thus, an attempt at character assassination (spread over three pages) begins:
‘If the Brexit moment is in many ways characterized by a kind of “return of the repressed,” as the psychoanalysts would put it, Nigel Biggar’s strange career as a public intellectual is emblematic of it…. It is clear that Biggar is fully representative of a powerful current within British public opinion, and has quite self-consciously sought to quicken this solidarity. Biggar has sought out the sympathy of a mob of rightwards opinion… a passive aggressive lament of a denigrated traditionalism, a deranged Conservatism, a British patriotism, perhaps even a denigrated “whiteness”… On this slender barque, he sailed to a chair at Leeds.’
And so on. The two have been on opposite sides in a ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ debate at the Oxford Union, and Drayton clearly feels that the personal attack is important to his critique of Biggar’s views. At the same time, taking further Christopher Clark’s critique of Max Hastings, which he cites, Drayton is at pains to tell us that he is a professor and that, as Biggar is no historian, his views are of limited value. That might well be the case if we were speaking of Rankean-style source criticism, but that is not the case here. Furthermore, Drayton’s position of authorisation by profession invites consideration of his field and, indeed, work. My reluctance to do so is overshadowed by Drayton’s personal attack on Biggar, who, of course, is a distinguished theologian and a careful writer on moral issues.
I have no idea what the field for his post was, but Drayton has powerful backers and certainly sailed, as he puts it, into a nice job with relatively little published. I enjoyed Nature’s Government.Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (2000), but it took a long time to appear and is somewhat reductionist and instrumentalist in technique. Moreover, I find John Gascoigne’s Science in the Service of Empire more convincing on Joseph Banks. Drayton’s Masks of Empire: The World History Underneath Modern Empires and Nations, c.1500 to the Present (2015) is a very slim work. The Empire of France: Imperial Monarch and Colonial Expansion, 1580-1830 (2008) is a book I have been unable to consult, but I am unaware of it being a major work. I apologise if I have grossly calumniated him as a result. So, maybe the barque is indeed light in his case. In a highly privileged academic career, much of which was at Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford, he of course has also sat on editorial boards, been awarded prizes, appeared in the Guardian, and spoken at a student ‘occupation’ in Cambridge, an item available on YouTube. Nevertheless, this is a career that is strong on assertion and where it would have been pleasant to see more scholarly publication before scholarship is deployed to adopt a position of judgment.
Possibly the field, British imperial history, is one with particular characteristics. We might expect the specialists to have a good knowledge of the societies that experienced British rule, including of the relevant languages, we might expect the comparative basis provided by a knowledge of other empires at the time, including non-Western ones, and of English/British imperialism over the longue durée in order to provide an assessment of the distinctive character of particular episodes. Well, we would be wrong. Most scholars are far more limited in their knowledge, scope, and, indeed, interests. This raises questions about the judgments adopted, questions that can be approached anew if considering the particular political engagement of so many of the writers. A lack of the wider context may help account for writings that appear to be motivated by a particular hatred of Britain and certainly of British imperialism. On the other hand, it is probable that the politics come first.
And this raises questions about the nature of professional history. The academic profession in Britain is encouraged by institutional pressure and funding to display ‘impact,’ but that entails taking part in public debates in which academic claims to an automatic distinctive accuracy are deeply flawed. Some years ago I spoke at a UN-sponsored conference in the USA that was trying to produce a legal definition of war. I was on toward the close and, commenting on what we had heard hitherto, argued that validation of an argument on the basis that a hypothetical scholar had held named chairs at Yale and then Harvard was ridiculous and, indeed, a form of academic class system. It was as if I had shat in public, but to me the proposition is still well-founded. Drayton’s online biography is a happy record of dignities, but I am certain that he is not so foolish as to imagine that these endow his arguments with any particular validity. I am also unclear why Clark, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Knight to whit, should be cited on Hastings when, as I have pointed out, Clark’s presentation of a generalised blame, rather than focusing on the particular character of the German regime and its pre-war planning, is problematic. If, on Drayton’s logic, he as historian must get to trump anything that Biggar as theologian has to say about history-as-what-actually-happened, then one wonders if Biggar as moral theologian must get to trump anything that Drayton as historian has to say about the ethical evaluation of what actually happened. Any such deference to professional status, however, is deeply problematic as individual issues should be judged on their merits. It is certainly ironic to see authorising by profession apparently advanced by those who in other contexts would claim to be anti-elitist.
What of the Brexit-Empire argument, which has been deployed in particular by Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, and Fellow of the British Academy. In his most recent book, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present (2019), a book based on the prestigious Wiles Lectures, Gildea claims to expose the realities of decolonisation and neo-colonisation: ‘Both Britain and France have constantly reinvented colonialism, as neo-colonialism, global financial imperialism, and the New Imperialism that was concealed behind the War on Terror.’ To Gildea, Brexiteers are guilty of ‘arrogance’ and ‘magical thinking’ while ‘the anguish of losing an empire and the fantasy of rediscovering it came to a head with the referendum of 2016.’
Gildea is to be congratulated on adding the comparative dimension to his work on France, but his grasp of British policy and politics is gravely limited. Moreover, the forward policies in Afghanistan (2001-), Iraq (2003-), Libya (2011) and Syria (2012) were associated with the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments, none of them noted for their Brexit sympathies. Indeed, Commons’ speakers against included, for example over Syria in 2012, Julian Lewis, one of the so-called Tory ‘Spartans’ in 2019. Edward Leigh is a Conservative Eurosceptic MP who opposed the Iraq war. And so on. Gildea is at best confused and certainly would have benefited from detailed research on parliamentary and other sources. There is no empirical evidence at all that Leave voters were propelled by ‘imperial nostalgia.’
Academic denunciations of Brexit come from the very heights of the historical profession, but most of the denouncers are far from having any relevant expertise. Fair enough, that is true of most commentators, but, maybe, we should expect more. What is particularly instructive is the general failure to look for similarities between Brexit and Remain arguments and, separately, to anatomise both sides. Instead, it is so much easier to offer the undifferentiated smear. I wonder how many of the historians would cut the same slack to their students if they employed similar methods to come to different comments. I suspect very few. Maybe they should look in the mirror and consider their own approach before hitting out at Nigel Biggar. But that would be to sacrifice what Richard Drayton appears to think is the appeal of being a mob, certainly the mob that controls the profession.
Jeremy Black’s most recent book, Imperial Legacies, was published by Encounter Books this year