David Hume Tower was renamed because of the philosopher’s remarks about non-white intelligence

Slaves to bad history

The battle for academic rigour at the home of the Scottish Enlightenment

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In September 2020, administrators at the University of Edinburgh decided that David Hume Tower should be renamed 40 George Square. According to a statement, Hume’s disparaging comments about non-white intelligence, “though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today”.

The affair provided an illuminating insight into the atmosphere of the university, and the climate of British cultural life. There was no attempt to make an overall assessment of the work of one of Britain’s most renowned philosophers. There was no attempt to place his life and work in its proper historical context. A few comments on the outermost peripheries of his expansive oeuvre consigned him to the realms of the unspeakable.

This was one of several incidents in Edinburgh which have made the city an extremely vivid case of left-wing institutional capture. Any thought or deed — historical or contemporary — which seems to defy the strict precepts of “social justice” demands exclusion, both because of student activism and because of academics and politicians.

Take the case of Dr Neil Thin. The respected anthropologist was subjected to a campaign of furious abuse by anonymous Edinburgh University students on the basis of allegedly posting “racist” tweets. His crimes? Well, he had the startling audacity to post “civilisation is for all”.

You’re horrified, I’m sure. Thin also stood accused of defending J.K. Rowling from accusations of transphobia and arguing that poor white people, as well as poor people from other ethnic backgrounds, face health inequalities.

The university are unbothered about baseless anonymous attacks on members of their staff

Somewhat more serious accusations — and they could hardly be less serious accusations — concerned Thin’s actual teaching. Students complained that Thin had marked them down for their work being “too woman-focused”, which would be unfair only if his comments were not actually true. He was also accused of overseeing debates which considered “sensitive topics like decolonisation from such a skewed western narrative” with “zero sensitivity and respect to personal experiences of minority groups”. Were those experiences relevant to the debate? Perhaps. But how?

The mere existence of complaints was enough for BlackED — an anti-racist campaigning group at the university — to demand increased “anti-racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, and ableist training.” One student told an Edinburgh student magazine that Thin should be “more restricted from the dissertation process” and that it “would be ideal if all of his powerpoints and lectures were audited, in order to make sure they are appropriate”. 

The university launched an investigation, despite there being no formal complaints, and cleared Thin of allegations of wrongdoing. He has not returned to teaching, though, as he has not received assurances that his employers will stand behind him. They were terribly concerned about charges of bias and prejudice, it seems, but are unbothered about baseless anonymous attacks on members of their staff.

This was also evident in 2019 when academics attempted to organise a seminar in which different perspectives on sex and transgenderism could be explored. At a similar event in 2018, the feminist activist, Julie Bindel, had been attacked outside a lecture hall. In 2019, LGBT activists objected to the presence of Stephanie Davies-Arai, co-founder of the group Transgender Trend, who opposed “sex assignment surgery” for teens. 

The seminar was cancelled, according to Dr Shereen Benjamin, senior lecturer in primary education, because she feared participants would be subjected to abuse. The Staff Pride Network Committee, which had refused to participate on the grounds that they “would not share a platform with speakers who do not accept trans identities as valid”, announced that it was “relieved”. 

To be fair, it is not clear that they knew why the event had been called off. But the subsequent lack of interest in fears for the physical safety of participants in university events was telling. “We need universities to establish and maintain the boundaries of acceptable protest from within their communities,” Benjamin told the Guardian, “And to intervene quickly and decisively if there are any attempts at intimidation.”

Other Edinburgh University academics feel under threat. Students are intolerant of ideas that differ from their own, and management is all too willing to “investigate” the pettiest and vaguest of complaints. This creates a “chilling effect”, according to one academic, leading lecturers to treat their students with kid gloves.

Peter Mathieson, the current principal and vice-chancellor of the university, came to Edinburgh from Hong Kong. There, as vice-chancellor and president of the University of Hong Kong, he faced criticism for not doing more to defend student protestors against the Beijing authorities.

Disputed sins of the father: graffiti covers the statue of Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, on Melville Street in Edinburgh. Melville was a former governor of the Bank of Scotland, and chancellor of the University of St Andrews

At least in Hong Kong he was in a difficult position. In Edinburgh? Not so much. You would think that if you had been dealing with the communists in China, one academic staff member at the university told The Critic, dealing with a few far leftist students should be simple enough.

Soon after arriving at the university, in 2018, Mathieson sent a doom-laden email to his staff complaining about a decline in student satisfaction scores. The onus was very much placed on staff members to account for this phenomenon. One can imagine how that went down.

There is no chance of intellectual development without an intellectual challenge

Of course, there are many factors behind student dissatisfaction. Rent is high. Lectures are packed. Perhaps the fact that these more significant issues are so difficult to address has helped to make management more cowardly when it comes to dealing with student complaints about course materials or the opinions of their staff. Ultimately, The Critic was told by the same academic, students are being let down as well as lecturers because there is no chance of intellectual development without an intellectual challenge.

The shadows of political radicalism and intellectual intolerance have not only been cast over academia in Edinburgh, they have swept across the city. In March 2021, Edinburgh City Council ruled that a plaque should sit beside a monument to Henry Dundas, the trusted right-hand man of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the most powerful politician in Scotland.

This was almost a year since the death of George Floyd. As BLM protests had spread, British progressives had taken inspiration from the toppling of Confederate monuments and had tipped Edward Colston into Bristol harbour. Keen to get ahead of the game, political and educational authorities had been renaming and altering monuments, as in the case of David Hume Tower. Dundas, the new plaque claims, was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade”. The plaque is dedicated “to the memory of the more than half-a-million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions”.

Academics protested against these bold assertions. “There is plenty of evidence,” wrote Jonathan Hearn, professor of Political and Historical Sociology at Edinburgh University, in a January 2022 Spectator piece: 

… to suggest that Dundas’s gradualist approach to abolition — however unsatisfactory it may seem to us in the present day — was the only approach which would be politically successful at the time, and as a skilled political operator, Dundas was very aware of this.

Hearns also pointed out that Dundas, a lawyer, represented Joseph Knight, a young slave who had escaped from a Scottish landowner and was suing for his freedom. Of course, a lawyer’s arguments as a lawyer need not reflect his actual beliefs. Still, it seems improbable that Dundas could have been a firm supporter of slavery and chosen this of all cases to defend.

A response came from Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who has been instrumental in reviewing the presentation of buildings, streets and monuments across Edinburgh that commemorate individuals allegedly associated with slavery and discrimination. Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, is heading up an Edinburgh University consultation and an Edinburgh City Council review simultaneously. 

It is worth pointing out that Palmer is not a historian but an expert in life sciences and a human rights activist. That need not preclude one from engaging in historical debate, of course, but Palmer seems to have little interest in debate. Rather than respond to the points raised by Hearn, he took to social media to denounce Hearn’s “racist propaganda” and his “academic racist gang”. 

Protest followed but Palmer was unmoved and unrepentant. When Sir Tom Devine, emeritus professor at Edinburgh University and author of Scotland’s Empire who is widely regarded as among Scotland’s foremost historians, called for his dismissal from his two review groups, Palmer sneered that Devine was making a “racist” demand and again decried the “academic racist gang”. 

Amid these repetitive slurs, Palmer never made an attempt to argue his position. This is a man with a powerful influence on the future of Scottish cultural life. What does it say about his judgment when his response to civil criticism from experts in the field that he has ventured into is to spray unfounded accusations of racial prejudice?

Devine is withering about Edinburghian iconoclasm

Edinburgh University’s initial response to the attack on its academics’ integrity came in the form of a statement in which it acknowledged protecting academic freedom with “respecting the right of individuals to challenge our community if they think certain behaviour impinges on the environment of mutual respect”. Thus it seemed that Hearn and Devine were fair game and could expect to be called out for their insensitivity to the lived experience of campaigners unable or unwilling to debate the quality of their evidence-based research.

Under pressure from senior members of his staff, Peter Mathieson sent Palmer an email reminding him to speak “in a respectful manner”, but it seems improbable that Palmer will face repercussions when he is being shielded by the SNP’s Edinburgh City Council leader, Adam McVey, a man whose commitment to virtue signalling is such that his profile photo on Twitter is largely obscured by his Covid mask.

Speaking to The Critic, Devine said that he knew Palmer’s insults were libellous. He sought legal advice from a distinguished defamation expert whose opinion “was conclusive”. Devine will not sue Palmer, though, because his charges were so hollow. Nobody has come out to defend them, indeed, but it is striking how few people have been willing to speak out against him.

Devine is withering about Edinburghian iconoclasm. The idea that “enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions”, as the plaque puts it, is, he says, “nonsensical”. He points to a forthcoming article in Scottish Affairs by Professor Angela McCarthy, which argues that the text on the plaque is “absurd, erroneous and ‘bad history’” and that Edinburgh City Council has a “moral duty” to remove it.

Different opinions might be held on the merits of Dundas’s gradualist approach to abolishing the slave trade, Devine states, “[But] the only serious discussion would be, where does the Dundas factor rank?”

“As far as David Hume is concerned,” meanwhile, “We’re debating a footnote.” “I don’t know how many times I put a pen through … students’ anachronisms,” Devine despairs.

What troubles him more, though, is silence. The silence of political and academic elites in response to attacks on academic and cultural standards, he says, represents “la trahison des clercs”, or, more precisely, intellectuals.

The authorities driving the witch-hunt against the past have been operating behind shields of anonymity

It is a development that also worries Edinburgh University’s former Rector, Iain Macwhirter. “Merely to argue for the inclusion of historical fact can now expose academics to accusations of racism,” Macwhirter wrote in the Scottish newspaper, The Herald, adding that “many fellow academics are horrified, but are keeping shtum, afraid that they’ll be next in the stocks”. If Mathieson, he added, was not prepared to defend his academics from such baseless slurs he should stand down as the university’s principal and vice-chancellor.

By contrast, the authorities driving the witch-hunt against the past and its historians have been operating behind the shields of anonymity and unaccountability. The names of review group members have not been released. This is apparently because they might be subjected to abuse on social media (“the irony,” chuckles Devine, recalling Palmer’s aggressiveness). Adam McVey insists: “The work of the independent Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group has given us an opportunity to have an open and honest conversation with ourselves and with our communities.”

An open and honest conversation — when we do not even know who is involved in the process except for the man whose response to scholarly criticism is to accuse people of being racists? We do not know if there are any genuine historians on the Group. Edinburgh City Council’s website does, at least, reveal that members include “community leaders”. The identity of these self-appointed tribunes of which communities and the basis for their claim to sit in judgment is, seemingly, none of our business.

Is bad history and rhetorical hooliganism to prevail? In 2020, “Topple the Racists” activists, promoted by commentators such as Owen Jones, had Admiral Nelson, Captain Cook and the founder of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Peel in their sights. Churchill’s statue was defaced. Iconoclasm, like revolution, is a fire that tends to rage beyond what even arsonists expect.

What is absent in all these cases is any kind of mass demand for action. Groups of activists, helped by friends in influential places, have pushed their agenda through, enabled by the silence of the cowed or the complacent. Professor Sir Tom Devine admits that it is retirement that has given him the chance to speak out without fear of consequences. 

As Devine points out, it was the great Scottish poet Robert Burns who celebrated “the man o’ independent mind”. It was David Hume who said, “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”

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