Colonialism was not good for the colonised, and those who think so must be challenged.


It has recently emerged that early in 2018, Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University hosted a private, invite-only conference to discuss the legacies of colonialism. Professor Biggar first sparked widespread controversy when, in 2017, he defended a controversial article by American professor Bruce Gilley, entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’, which explored the positive case for colonialism, remarking that Briton’s should “moderate their post-imperial guilt”. In response to Professor Biggar’s remarks, 180 Oxford scholars signed a letter condemning Biggar’s comments, arguing that “colonial apologists have long sought to justify colonial rule by highlighting the supposed benefits of colonialism for the colonised”. Early in 2018, Professor Biggar held this invite-only conference as part of the McDonald Centre’s interdisciplinary project on Ethics and Empire.

The Ethics and Empire project “begs to differ” with the idea that “’empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical”. Seeking to “test the critiques against the historical facts of empire”, it appears that the intention of the interdisciplinary project is to question the hitherto negative assumptions of Empire and imperialism, and in so doing, shed light on contemporary issues in international relations, such as, “western intervention in the affairs of other sovereign states”, multiculturalism and the “rights and responsibilities of imperial crimes”.

Let us be clear: Empires and imperialism were detrimental to colonised populations. Such projects are attemtping to force a debate where there simply is none. “Civilising missions” were merely code for racial subjugation. Western intervention, ignorance and gerrymandering of colonial territories left borders in wrong places, sowing the seeds of future chaos. Recent estimates suggest that between 1765 and 1938, Britain drained $45 trillion from colonial India alone. The list goes on. Empires and imperialism were not beneficial, nor are their legacies something to be proud of.

But this controversy is part of a more fundamental clash, which seems to have en epicentre at our very own university. In recent weeks at Oxford University, it has become commonplace to find oneself in the midst of heated debate over whether individuals with controversial political views should be allowed to have a platform to discuss their ideas. This debate was most ripe in November when students were forced to decide how they felt about Steve Bannon and Alice Wiedel being invited to speak at the Oxford Union. After discussing this debate with a friend of my fathers, it became obvious to me that at the heart of this important debate is a generational clash; for our parents, young enough to recall (albeit perhaps through conversations with their own parents) times when free speech was by no means a guarantee, freedom of speech is the most important right to be protected. For our generation, however, freedom of speech is often interpreted as hate speech in new garb, and many of us opt to prioritise political correctness instead.

Upon first reading about Professor Biggar’s private conference, my initial thoughts concerned whether he should have been allowed the space to host this conference on such a controversial subject. It is certainly important to consider the debate between freedom of speech and political correctness. However, the way in which this debate has dominated discourse means that more often than not we are significantly distracted from considering, and in many cases negating, the actual political principles at play. The reality is that where clashes between freedom of speech and political correctness are most heated are, in many cases, after the fact. In other words, the controversial individual or group has either already been invited or already spoken out. Surely, then, we should focus more on developing concrete arguments against their political ideas (if that is how we are inclined), rather than spending all our energy arguing that they ought not to have been invited in the first place.

“For our generation, however, freedom of speech is often interpreted as hate speech in new garb, and many of us opt to prioritise political correctness instead.”

In the twenty-first century, it is generally understood that processes of colonialism were morally wrong and that they caused serious and long-lasting damage to colonised populations. But however widespread these views may be, there is little doubt that the consensus is under attack. In 2017, Professor Bruce Gilley wrote ‘The Case for Colonialism’ in which he argued that: “for the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name…it is high time to question this orthodoxy.” Around the same time, Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University similarly commented that the “history of the British Empire was morally mixed”.

In this atmosphere, it is critical that we do not let ourselves get distracted by debates about whether individuals should be given the space to voice their political ideas or not. Instead, we should stop for a moment and reflect on why we, personally, disagree with these ideas. In an environment where individuals are suggesting that we bring back Western colonialism and even that the West should start setting up new colonies, it is increasingly imperative that as individuals we are able to produce convincing arguments against these ideas and ensure that the burden of arguing against reinstating colonialism does not simply fall to those who have historically already suffered under its hands.

It is equally important that we do not let ourselves be paralysed by the surprise of hearing individuals calling for an explicit return to colonialism. There is no doubt that the way the international order is structured still disadvantages many newly independent states. Think, for example, about the permanent five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, China, the United States, the UK and France. While the P5 are not exclusively Western, it is arguably an imperially structured system nonetheless. And in this case, the power of veto means that it is extremely unlikely that this system, which advantages five states over the remaining 188, will ever change. 

We should not bring back the Western colonialism of earlier centuries. However, there are a few things that we should do; namely, we should allow ourselves enough time to reflect so that we can produce convincing arguments against these ideas, rather than simply arguing that they should not be allowed to be voiced. Moreover, we should not be surprised by calls for a return to history. In fact, all that has happened recently is that academics are referring explicitly to returning to formal practices of colonialism when, in reality, the way that the international order is structured in the twenty-first century still, in many ways, resembles colonialism in all but name.

Image Credit: Edward Linley Sambourne via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0)