The Pugilistic Pastor: Nigel Biggar and the Imperial History WarsRoundup
tags: British history, British Empire, Nigel Biggar
Dane Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at George Washington University. His most recent book is The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire (Bloomsbury, 2018).
“This house would restore the British Empire.” King’s College London’s Conservative Association proposed this debate topic for a “Port and Policy” event earlier this year. Leading Brexiteers were saying much the same thing a few years ago, using euphemisms like the Anglosphere, CANZUK, and Global Britain to gin up enthusiasm for the glory days of empire. But with Britain demonstrably poorer, weaker, and more divided than it was before Brexit, and with Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and the campaign to decolonize museums and curricula exposing the empire’s ugly underbelly, one has to wonder whether these young King’s College Tories’ policy prescription is derived from too much port.
Still, others share their fondness for empire. Nigel Biggar, Oxford University’s Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology and Director of the McDonald Centre (funded by an American religious foundation), has made it his mission in recent years to restore Britons’ pride in their imperial past. He first drew public attention as a leading critic of the campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from its Oriel College niche. Soon thereafter he announced that the McDonald Centre would launch a six-year “Ethics and Empire” project, designed to develop a “Christian ethic of empire.” He revealed his intent in a Times op-ed: “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history.” Now, with the McDonald project coming to a close, Biggar has published a manifesto on the subject, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
Before turning to Colonialism, we should take note of Biggar’s public persona. A frequent commentator for The Times, The Telegraph, and other conservative news outlets, Biggar has become a prominent culture warrior, quick to comment on the day’s hot-button issues. Stopping illegal immigrants from crossing the English Channel? There’s “nothing un-Christian” about that. Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece? A misguided demonstration of “colonial guilt.” Removing a Jesus College chapel plaque memorializing an investor in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company? “Cancel culture.” Like many culture warriors, Biggar casts himself as a victim of persecution. He crusades “against thought police” who supposedly tyrannize university campuses, complaining that there is a “climate of fear at Oxford” and that Cambridge discriminates “against white, conservative men.” Coming from a Regius professor who oversees his own academic center and freely voices his views in major news outlets, these complaints might strike some Brits as whingeing. But they are catnip for the Right. Not surprisingly, “a host of genial, approving Tories” attended the Oxford launch of his book, including Michael Gove (currently Secretary of State for—I kid you not—Leveling Up) , former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, and Danny Kruger, MP.
What Colonialism offers those “approving Tories” is an unbridled defense of the British Empire. Others have argued that the empire brought with it a range of benefits—the formation of an international order, the growth of global trade, the spread of modern medicine and technology, the introduction of law and order, and so on. Niall Ferguson explicitly cast the British Empire’s benefits in moral terms, declaring them “a good thing.” But no one matches the unabashed zeal with which Biggar, waving his Anglican credentials in “moral theology,” makes the ethical case for empire.
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