KG4A62 Oxford, UK. 3rd Nov, 2017. Hundreds of Oxford University students turn up in Radcliffe Camera to protest Oxford's elitism and a call on Oxford University to commit to a long-term project of decolonisation at all levels. The rally was organised by Oxford SU Class Act. Credit: Pete Lusabia/Alamy Live News

Deconstructing decolonisation

At its most radical, the push for decolonising the curriculum rests on a series of false assumptions that we need to repudiate


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Last October, the acting vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Dr Anthony Freeling, made a confession, widely reported in the press. He confessed that he is baffled by “decolonisation”. The word, he said, “has been misused to such an extent that I don’t think, if I’m honest, I can give an accurate definition”. 

I sympathise with his bafflement because “decolonisation” can mean a variety of different things, some of which make good sense, but others, very bad sense indeed. And the bad ones smuggle themselves into university departments under cover of the good. 

The original and most natural home of “decolonisation” is in former British colonies. There it can mean something entirely reasonable. For example, in 1986 the Kenyan novelist and playwright, Ngugi wa Thiong’o published a book with the title, Decolonising the Mind. Here he argued that African literature should be written in African languages, such as his own Gikuyu. Why? So that Africans can recover a sense of self-respect and stop being in thrall to the assumption that whatever comes out of Europe is better. To which the only sensible response is: Yes, of course.

When translated out of its original, post-colony context and into contemporary Britain, “decolonisation” can still make some good sense. It can mean correcting the neglect in school curricula of the history of immigration and the contribution of immigrants to this country. 

Or it can mean that important texts that have been excluded from reading lists in schools and universities, just because of prejudice against the race of their authors should be included.

Less reasonable, however, is the opposition of “decolonisers” to “Euro-centricity” and their insistence on shifting attention to non-European histories and cultures. On the contrary, a certain Euro-centricity in British education is entirely justified. Britain is not Anywhere. We are located in northwest Europe, we have a particular history, and we have developed particular institutions and traditions. 

It’s vitally important, therefore, that school education at least should focus on helping budding citizens understand the immediate cultural and political environment in which they stand and for which they are about to become directly responsible. At university, students can then immerse themselves completely in African culture, Indian history, and Chinese language, if they so wish. Equally unreasonable, I think, is the claim that school and university reading lists should contain an ethnic diversity of authors, so that an ethnic diversity of students can identify with them. 

It seems to me manifestly untrue that people of a certain race can only relate to, understand, be inspired by, and learn from someone of the same race. White Britons have been admiring the Semitic Jesus for two millennia and the Indian Mahatma Gandhi for over a century. And judging by the occasion on Christ Church’s high table ten years ago when I was surrounded by a troupe of Shakespearean actors from Kabul, Afghans are perfectly capable of appreciating England’s most famous dramatist. We aren’t intellectually imprisoned in racial silos. 

Positively dangerous is the “decolonising” view that identifies reason, scientific method, and the liberal values of tolerance and free speech as Euro-centric and therefore manifestations of an oppressive Western hegemony that deserves to be pulled down. How much good sense does that make to the ethnically Chinese students who have put their lives and liberty at risk in fighting for liberal rights in Hong Kong? And what exactly is the alternative to reason and tolerance other than arbitrary force? This anti-rational “decolonisation” is the handmaid of authoritarian politics. 

So, some kinds of “decolonisation” make good sense and some bad, but the one that should worry us most, I suggest, is that which tells the following story: Britain is a systemically racist country whose racism is rooted in its colonial past and the epitome of this colonial past was slavery. That view of Africans as subhuman expanded into a wholesale disparagement of non-white cultures. Therefore, we need to expel this lingering racist mentality by repudiating Britain’s colonial heritage. 

That’s the cultural revolutionary “decolonising” story that smuggles itself into university departments under cover of more reasonable ideas. And it’s a false story — false because every one of its main assumptions is wrong.

There are lots of people on the Left, and some on the Right, who think that the present”Culture War” is either a mendacious distraction or a futile one. I could not disagree more strongly. The colonial front in the Culture War is culturally crucial; and since politics is downstream of culture, it is politically crucial, too. Why? Because what is at stake is the self-confidence of the British and their identity as a people committed to support and promote a liberal international order. 

In his 1930s novel, A Man Without Qualities which was set in the decline of the Austrian Empire around 1900, Robert Musil wrote “However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it … once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.” 

Scottish nationalism, together with far-Left socialism, have not only abandoned the British faith; they actively seek to undermine it. Cultural revolutionary “decolonisation” threatens to infect us, and undermine our liberal power, with the canker of imaginary guilt.

First, then, is Britain systemically racist?

First, then, is Britain systemically racist? If it was, would most of those in charge of the major departments of the British state in the Johnson, Truss and Sunak Conservative governments be Britons of Middle Eastern, Asian, or African heritage? Systemically racist countries do not fill the highest offices of state with members of ethnic minorities.

Next, the March 2021 report of the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities — the so-called Sewell Report — argued that contemporary Britain is not in fact systemically racist, even if it contains instances of structural racism.

Those ideologically inclined to dismiss Sewell should pay attention to the 2018 report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Being Black in the EU. This found that the prevalence of racist harassment as perceived by people of African descent was lower in the UK than in any EU country except Malta, and the prevalence of overall racial discrimination was the lowest in the UK bar none. 

Moving from Britain as a whole to higher education in particular, it is widely assumed by many academics that British universities are systemically racist. But that is not obviously true. Take the following empirical data. According to a 2021 report, the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic population of England and Wales aged 19-25 is over 19 per cent. Yet the non-white undergraduate student intake in UK universities is almost 29 per cent. And even at elite Oxford it is just under 25 per cent.

That is to say, the non-white proportion of undergraduate students exceeds their proportion of the relevant age group. And that has been true for several years. Moreover, 9.5 per cent of non-white academic staff are professors, only 2.1 percentage points lower than their white peers. And the situation of different non-white groups varies dramatically. So while the professorial proportion of black staff was just four per cent, that of their Chinese colleagues was 17 per cent — much higher than that of whites. These figures simply do not support the claim of systemic racial bias of whites against non-whites in our universities. 

What about the second assumption, that such racism as persists in Britain today is rooted in British colonialism and its epitome, slavery? 

A fly in the ointment of this argument is that the British Empire was the first major power in the history of the world to abolish the slave trade and slavery in the name of a Christian conviction of the fundamental equality of all human races under God. This was the racially egalitarian view that triumphed in 1807 when the British parliament voted to abolish the trade in slaves throughout the Empire, and again in 1833, when it voted to abolish the institution of slavery altogether. 

What is more, from 1807 and throughout the second half of its existence until the 1960s, the Empire was committed to suppressing the trade and the institution across the world — from Brazil, across Africa, to India and Malaysia. 

In the 1820s and 1830s, the Slave Trade Department was the largest unit in the Foreign Office. At one point in the mid-century, the Royal Navy was deploying over 13 per cent of its total manpower in suppressing the trade in slaves between west Africa and the Americas. According to the economic historian, David Eltis, the British spent almost as much suppressing the Atlantic trade in the forty-seven years from 1816 to 1862 as they earned in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807. 

According to the American international relations scholars, Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape, Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic trade (alone) in 1807-67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.

So, we cannot identify British colonialism with slavery and racism, because for the second half of its life — the one closest to us — anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of British imperial policy. 

One mark of this discontinuity between the first and second halves of the British Empire’s life is the witness of African Americans in the nineteenth century. As the American historian of abolition, John Stauffer, has written: “Almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. Frederick Douglass [the famous black abolitionist] noted after arriving in England in 1845: ‘I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the United States]’.”

Just over a century later, Desmond Tutu had a similar experience when he first visited Britain in the 1960s. According to his obituary in The Times newspaper last December, “[i]t was in Britain that [Tutu] first began to realise the intrinsic evil of apartheid. Police officers were polite. White people did not take precedence in queues. He visited Lord’s, the Royal Albert Hall and the Travellers Club in Pall Mall. He lost the sense of inferiority most black South Africans felt in the presence of whites …” And he lost it here, in Britain.

I am not arguing that the British Empire did not contain elements of ugly racist contempt for native peoples. It certainly did, but more at the colonial periphery than at the imperial centre, and more among settlers and planters than among colonial officials. 

Now we arrive at the third and final assumption of the revolutionary “decolonising” story, namely, that British colonial racism manifested itself in a wholesale disparagement of the cultures of non-white peoples and in the unwelcome imposition of “white” culture upon them. 

Human cultures are not hermetically sealed. They learn and borrow from one another. For example, the religion that has done most to shape European culture — Christianity — wasn’t invented in Europe. It arose in the Middle East among a Semitic people who did not speak a Romance or Teutonic or Slavic language and whose skin colour was not pink.

And when British and other missionaries brought a Europeanised version of that Semitic religion to Africa, they did not have the power to impose it. But they didn’t have to, since, with its message of the “brotherhood of Man” and “equality in Christ”, Christianity proved naturally attractive to African refugees, slaves, children, marginalised adults such as women, and repressed teenagers such as girls fleeing compulsory circumcision. 

Yet, if Africans adopted Christianity, they also adapted it. They did not swallow the European version wholesale and passively; they acted upon it and Africanised it. 

Human cultures are constantly giving and taking, adopting and adapting. So to divide the world into simplistic, static “white” and “black” cultural blocs is just not intelligent.

(And so the idea that each culture has some natural moral monopoly in its own creations and that “cultural appropriation” is a form of theft, is absurd.) 

The historian of British India, David Gilmour, finds fault with Edward Said’s post-colonialist stereotype of the British imperialist whose only motive for taking an interest in native cultures was to enhance British power: 

No serious survey of the scholars of the Indian Civil Service could conclude that they were a body of men who employed their skills to define an Indian ‘Other’ and create a body of knowledge for the purpose of furthering colonial rule … most were like the German orientalists, who had no colonialist agenda of their own, men motivated by pure curiosity and a desire to learn …. What imperialist use could be made of [John Faithfull] Fleet’s work on the inscriptions of the Gupta kings or [Evelyn] Howell’s translation of the Mahsud ballads or [Arthur Coke] Burnell’s catalogues of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Palace of Tanjore? How, one wonders, are such works [as Said claims] ‘imbricated with political power’? [And] [h]ow do they fit in with … Said’s theory that ‘all academic knowledge about India … is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact’ of British domination?

If some Britons were keen to rescue Sanskritic culture, some Indians were just as keen to jettison it. In 1823 Raja Ram Mohan Roy wrote to Lord Amherst, the governor-general of India, to protest against the East India Company’s policy of supporting traditional Sanskrit learning, which he described as “the best calculated to keep this country in darkness”. 

Instead, he urged the British to promote the education of “the natives of India in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences, which the nations of Europe have carried to a degree of perfection that has raised them above the inhabitants of other parts of the world”. 

Note: here it was the British who wanted to invest in classical indigenous Indian culture, while a progressive Indian dismissed it as benighted, urging instead that Indians be allowed to share in modern European enlightenment. 

I am not saying that, in addition to elements of bona fide curiosity and admiration, the Empire did not contain elements of cultural repression, born of political fear or racist contempt. I think here of the repression of Gaelic culture in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, this needs to be distinguished — in a way that talk of cultural “genocide” does not — from well-intentioned policies of native assimilation to British culture. 

The goal of assimilation was the full integration of natives into European society as equal citizens. Accordingly, in Cape Colony, black Africans were granted the vote on the same terms as whites as early as 1853 — sixteen years before the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. In New Zealand all adult Maori males were granted the vote in 1867. And their native counterparts in Eastern Canada were granted it in 1885. 

By its very nature, cultural assimilation involves change. It involves letting go of at least some of the old and taking hold of at least some of the new. One of the benefits of imperial rule in Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa was the ending of endemic inter-tribal warfare. 

The ending of persistent war is good, but it does entail the redundancy of warriors. Young aboriginal, Maori, and Bantu men had to learn a new way of life, because the old one was gone from them. And on the western prairies of Canada, the sudden collapse of the bison population in the 1880s meant that the economic basis for traditional native life vanished. 

Members of the First Nations of Canada had to change in order to survive, and they knew it. Which is why their chiefs insisted on the provision of schools when they were negotiating the so-called Numbered Treaties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And well into the last century they were lobbying for more residential schools — yes, the ones currently reviled in the press — where their children would be immersed in English language and learn a settled, agricultural way of life. 

Now, the assimilation sufficient for survival and flourishing in the new future need not have involved the wholesale jettisoning of the past. It could have been discriminate; too often it was not. Some white teachers of native children were indiscriminately disparaging of their traditional culture to a racist extent. That was wrong and lamentable. But the main point still stands: the British Empire’s policies of assimilation were intended to rescue native people from a past that was irrecoverable, so that they might flourish in a future that was unavoidable. And that they might do so as equal citizens.

In sum, the revolutionary “decolonising” story is wrong in every one of its three main assumptions. It should not be allowed to corrode faith in Britain’s future and to infect British policy with imaginary guilt.

Nonetheless, despite the striking nakedness of the decolonising emperor, British university managers are often intent on imposing “decolonising” policies and British academics are often ready to adopt them. According to a recent report from the thinktank, Civitas, more than half of UK universities are committed to undertake some form of “decolonisation”.

Why that is so bears a lot of reflection. But my own experience tells me that the main cause comprises the political zeal of a few, riding on the back of the historical ignorance of the many and their terror of being thought un-progressive in the eyes of their peers. 

Never over-estimate the moral courage of us academics. We may be fiercely independently-minded in the narrow fields of our scholarly expertise, but in general we are perfectly capable of behaving like sheep. 

So what should we do about it?

So what should we do about it? Cambridge’s acting vice-chancellor has given a lead, as did Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, just over a year ago when she called for more “ideological diversity” in our universities. We have to take the risk of voicing our dissident doubts about “decolonisation” and putting sceptical questions to it. 

And if any professor or university manager slaps you down, protest your right to question a set of views that baffles even the acting vice-chancellor of Cambridge. And if your own university authorities won’t support you, appeal to the Free Speech Union.

Within the next twelve months, when the Government’s bill on freedom of speech in higher education comes into force, universities and student unions will acquire a statutory duty to defend and promote academic freedom. And both students and professors will acquire the right to appeal against their own universities to the Office for Students, if they believe that their freedom to dissent from a set of dubious social scientific and historical views is not being upheld.

It is vital that we take risks in asserting our legal right to doubt and interrogate the “decolonising” story, because what is at stake is confidence in Britain as an important pillar of the liberal West and the liberal international order at a time when illiberal powers are baring their teeth. 

Remember Elie Kedourie’s words: “the canker of imaginary guilt even the greatest Power can ill withstand”. The guilt that cultural revolutionary “decolonisers” would hoist upon us is largely imaginary. So, we need to stand up and say what we see. We need to break the spell.

Nigel Biggar was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford from 2007 to 2022. His Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning is published by William Collins on 2 February 2023.


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