by Frank Schnittger
Thu Mar 11th, 2021 at 01:31:14 AM EST
The British Empire and Ireland
A chara, - Professor Nigel Biggar writes: "If colonialists can `other' the natives, essentialising them into contemptible stereotypes, nationalists, too, can `other' the imperialists." This is a classic case of "both sides do it" as if there is an equivalence between the actions of the oppressor and the oppressed. The slave is not equally guilty of slavery as the slaver, even if he has reconciled himself to his fate, and ends up working for his enslaver.
The Irish literary and language revival was an act of opposition to colonial rule, not an expression of it, as Prof Biggar seems to imply. The fact that there were many outstanding individuals, some earning their living as servants of the empire, who did not subscribe to the "imperial project" and indeed ameliorated its worst effects, does not alter the fact that the main thrust of UK government imperial policy was one of domination and suppression.
History is complex, with many interwoven narratives, but to try to obscure its main thrust with anecdotes about those few people who swam against the tide is hardly an "ethical remembering". It demeans the achievements of those who stood out against the worst aspects of imperialism and uses them to justify or mitigate the acts of its worst perpetrators. Far from constituting a balanced historiography, it is a shocking washing of hands by a professor of moral theology. - Is mise,
The Irish Times, much to the annoyance of may of its commentators, continues to publish the views of a wide range of British academics, journalists and politicians on Ireland's role in the British Empire, in Europe, and now as part of the British Isles. In the meantime it employs only a handful (of admittedly very good) correspondents in Europe: Naomi O'Leary in Brussels, Derek Scally in Berlin, Paddy Agnew in Rome, and Lara Marlowe in Paris.
So we had disgraced former Labour MP Denis McShane telling is that we are part of the British Isles, and that our prosperity is very much linked to that of the UK. Newton Emerson claimed that Irish Europhilia is just displaced anglophobia. Finn McRedmond chiming in with the Telegraph that The Irish president has a cheek lecturing Britons about history. And Finally yesterday we had Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, telling us that our President's view of British empire is too one-sided.
Hence my letter published today and copied above, which attempts to rebut his central thesis that Britain can be proud of much of its imperial history. The Irish Times omitted the third paragraph of my letter, which read:
Neither does the British empire's war against a rival wannabe Nazi empire do anything to justify the British imperial project, it was merely two military empires fighting each other for dominance. The fact that the Nazi empire turned out to be even more evil in perpetrating of the Holocaust, does not excuse the only slightly more passive British imperial project of starving almost half the population of this island to forced emigration or death.
But the overall sense of my letter remains: That Imperialism is not something any nation should be proud of, even if some empires were marginally more humane than others, and many individuals strove to alleviate the its worst effects. Nigel Bigger has form in defending imperialism: A group of over 50 Oxford academics recently felt compelled to disassociate themselves from his views:
Ethics and empire: an open letter from Oxford scholars
A group of Oxford academics has written the below letter following the debate surrounding an article in The Times entitled "Don't feel guilty about our colonial history" by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.
We are scholars who work on histories of empire and colonialism and their after-effects, broadly understood. We teach our students to think seriously and critically about those histories and their contemporary legacies. We write to express our opposition to the public stance recently taken on these questions by Nigel Biggar, also an academic at Oxford, and the agenda pursued in his recently announced project entitled "Ethics and Empire".
Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses or finds compelling, and to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate. But his views on this question, which have been widely publicised at the Oxford Union, as well as in national newspapers, risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship. For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past. We therefore feel obliged to express our firm rejection of them.
Biggar's media interventions have been spurred in defence of a discredited polemical opinion piece by American political scientist Bruce Gilley. This advocated a "recolonisation" of parts of the world by Western powers as a solution to misgovernment in the global south. His own call for British "pride to temper shame" in the assessment of empire is similarly intended to fortify support for overseas military interventions today. Such prescriptions not only rest on very bad history, they are breathtakingly politically naive.
Biggar apparently approves of Bruce Gilley's article "The case for colonialism" which argued that western nations should recolonise the the third world because the natives were doing such a bad job of running their own countries. It seems as if the established church in Britain is not done with colonialism yet. No wonder the Brexiteers dream of re-establishing a "global Britain" at the head of a commonwealth of right thinking nations. I think we in Ireland will be giving it a miss.