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Ethics and Empire: Further Developments

Sunday, 15 April 2018 - 10:00am

Following Nigel Biggar's extended response in The Times to the Open Letter criticising the "Ethics and Empire" project,  a number of influential figures have emerged to express their support for his proposed reappraisal of Britain's colonial legacy.  On 27 December, the former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, wrote a letter to The Times sharply criticising the claim that Prof. Biggar was asking 'the wrong questions, using the wrong terms.'  The letter formed the basis of a front-page article in that day's edition and was also discussed in articles featured in The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail.  

The following day's edition of The Times featured further support in the letters column from Dr. Alexander Morrison, a historian of empire and of colonial warfare and Tutorial Fellow in History at New College, Oxford, and Prof. Gillian Evans, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.  The controversy was also discussed in an op-ed essay for The Daily Telegraph by the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, and in an essay for The Daily Mail by the British businessman, Dr. Karter Lalvani. 

More recently, Dr James McDougall, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Trinity College, Oxford, and one of the organisers of the Open Letter, published an article in The Guardian developing some of its points.  The article was followed by an op-ed piece in The Guardian by one of its columnists, Ian Jack.  Finally, The Church Times published a comment piece by the Anglican priest and spiritual writer, Angela Tilby, which concluded by briefly considering the question of empire in the context of the New Testament, while Prof. Bernard Porter, a prolific historian of the British Empire and self-described 'socialist and active anti-imperial campaigner', contributed his thoughts on the controversy in a post on his personal blog. 

The controversy also attracted discussion in a recent blog by Kenan Malik for the New York Review of Books after it was heavily criticised in a blog by the writer and Indian politician Shashi Tharoor.  Tharoor's views, as expressed in his recent book, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), have elicited critical responses from Zareer Masani in an article for Gulf News and Sumantra Maitra in an essay for Quillette

Masani debated with Tharoor at the Times of India Literary Festival in Mumbai in December 2017, after publishing a more general critique of anti-colonial stances towards the British Raj in The Wire.  Maitra discussed the 'Ethics and Empire' project in a recent article for The Salisbury Review.  Prof Biggar was interviewed on the broader question of academic freedom by BBC South, by the leading German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and by the Swiss magazine Kultur Tipp

In March, The Telegraph India featured a discussion of the project in the context of the removal of a painting of Lord Curzon in the dining hall of Balliol College at the instigation of student protests, while an article in El Pais described the Ethics & Empire project as 'the epicentre [of] a more positive vision of the British empire and the empires in general.' 

Further criticisms of the project were advanced by McDougall and Kim Wagner, Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London, in an opinion piece for the Times Higher Education Supplement, which elicted letters in response by Masani and Geoffrey Alderman of the University of Buckingham.