Talk delivered to ALES virtual event: Communications of Archives as Public History 

18 March 2024 

The sociologist James Davison Hunter first used the term ‘culture war’ in a book on American religious authority and politics since the 1960s, first published in 1991. He identified a worrying tendency: a ‘political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding’.[1] Hunter believed this new form of divisiveness was emerging over issues such as reproductive rights, child-care, affirmative action, gay rights and multiculturalism. These issues all rest upon moral authority – ‘the basis by which people determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong’. Compromise, collaboration and consensus are particularly difficult when it comes to issues of this nature.

Reflecting back on his book more recently, Hunter said that he had been trying to issue a warning. In the early 1990s, he felt that most Americans might be leaning towards one side or the other of this incipient culture war but were unwilling to adopt any extreme position wholly or uncritically. The ‘polarising tendencies’ were ‘sharpest in organisations and spokespeople who have an interest in promoting a particular position on a social issue’, and who ‘possess tremendous power in the realm of public discourse’.[2] Hunter hoped that Americans might arrest these tendencies before they threatened the consensual foundations of US democracy. He could never, of course, have foreseen the extent to which someone like Donald Trump would embody his worst fears. In 2022, Hunter despaired, ‘we are at a stage where people can no longer talk to each other because they don’t even recognize each other’s moral language’.[3]

Since the 2008 crisis in capitalism, populist parties and leaders around the democratic world have played up these kinds of fundamental cultural divisions, blaming cosmopolitan elites, immigrants, and minorities for the deteriorating material circumstances of supposedly ‘indigenous’ working classes, and appealing to voters who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation. In the UK we have seen post-liberal culture war tactics used against a menu of targets including people seeking asylum, trans-gender people, environmental and antiracist activists, and Muslims.

Most academic historians of colonialism – those of us who have long based our work on archival research and the conventions of scholarly interpretation – have remained on the side-lines of this public contestation. However, the last decade has seen the legacies of the British colonial past turned into one of its most viciously contested terrains. Let me set out very briefly eight of the most significant milestones in this recent politicisation of colonial history:

In 2015 the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began in South Africa. Black students seeking more fundamental changes at what, in the apartheid era, had been the Whites-only University of Cape Town, pulled down the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a domineering symbol of Black dispossession and oppression that loomed over the campus.

When students at Oxford began a successor campaign to remove the small statue of Rhodes above the entrance to Oriel College in 2016, it provoked a large-scale, well-orchestrated backlash. Nigel Biggar, a theologian at Oxford to whom I will return shortly, was one of the public figures prompted to turn his attention to the colonial past over this issue, establishing a research programme funded by an American evangelical foundation to examine, and many would argue, defend, the ethics of colonialism.

In 2017 the academic journal Third World Quarterly published an article by Canadian-American Brue Gilley, calling for voluntary recolonisation. He presented data which appeared to show that formerly colonised countries had fared better on a range of indices in the long run than those which had remained independent, blaming stalled progress on the nationalists who led many countries to independence. Academics criticised Gilley’s methods, data and findings, and the article sparked a furious reaction from antiracist activists, who saw it as eliding the violence and the racism of colonialism. The publisher withdrew the article on the grounds that serious threats had been made against the journal’s editor.[4]

In June 2020 the murder of George Floyd was followed by Black Lives Matter protestors pulling down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and dumping it in Bristol harbour.In the immediate aftermath, a kind of statue hysteria broke out. On the one hand, a crowd-funded website, set up initially to protest at a visit to the UK by Donald Trump, hosted a Topple the Racists map identifying other statues of men involved in colonial violence and exploitation ripe for targeting.

Activists called for some of them to be removed or for additional explanatory plaques to be added. On the other hand, right-wing newspapers and certain politicians exaggerated the threats, encouraging groups of far-right activists to form protection rings around statues that nobody was proposing to remove. Asked what he would do if the Mayor of London’s Commission sought to remove statues of Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson, Oliver Dowden, the then culture secretary answered: “I would happily chain myself to Nelson [who stands at the top of a 52m high column in Trafalgar Square] to stop him being removed.”[5]

Aside from the contestation over statues, the Black Lives Matter movement prompted a number of venerable institutions, including Oxbridge colleges, the Church of England, the Royal Family, banks, insurance companies and large corporations to trace their own complicity in slavery and plan reparative actions, with a corresponding condemnation of such efforts as ‘woke’ from those opposed. The latest salvoes have been fired these last couple of weeks over Church of England reparations for slave trading and ownership.

In 2021, after Black Lives Matter protestors named Winston Churchill a racist by graffitiing his statue in Westminster, the Cambridge college named as his national memorial embarked upon a series of online discussions to bring to light his relationship to race and empire. Even before the first event had taken place, The Daily Mail quoted Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames MP describing it as an ‘idiotic debate that’s got out of control in all our universities’. In 2020, The Daily Mail had already been forced to pay Professor Priyamvada Gopal, the academic who would chair the events, £25,000 in damages after claiming, falsely, that she was ‘attempting to incite a race war, and that she supported and endorsed the subjugation and persecution of white people’. The Churchill College series lasted for two sessions before it was terminated, it seems by a campaign orchestrated by the think tank Policy Exchange, the Telegraph newspaper and the Churchill family, who threatened to withdraw support for the college’s hosting of the Churchill archive. A Policy Exchange paper published by Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes misrepresenting what a panel comprised of scholars of colour had said about Churchill seems to have been critical to their victory.[6]

Also in 2021, over 50 Conservative MPs formed the ‘Common Sense’ group, publishing their manifesto, Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-liberal Age. In it, Gareth Bacon MP, claimed that ‘traducing’ the ‘reputation of key figures in our country’s history’ calls ‘the very sense of what it is to be British … into question’. ‘Britain is under attack’, he continued, ‘Not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense’. One of the group’s first targets was Professor Corinne Fowler, who had co-authored a report for the National Trust in 2019 on its estates’ ties to colonial activities of various kinds.[7]

In a speech to Parliament, Jacob Rees Mogg claimed that the report denigrated Churchill by mentioning his home, Chartwell (the report noted that Churchill was Colonial Secretary and voted against Indian Independence). The Daily Telegraph prepared the ground for referring the National Trust to the Charity Commission on the grounds that the report was outside the Trust’s charitable remit, a claim that was found to be without substance.[8] Fowler’s subsequent work continued to be the target of the Telegraph, Mail and Common Sense group MPs. When the Daily Mail claimed, falsely, that she had likened Japanese treatment of POWs to British colonialism Fowler received an avalanche of hate mail and threats.[9]

In August 2021, a group of scholars including Robert Tombs (appointed by Boris Johnson to a new Heritage Advisory Board in the wake of Colston’s toppling), Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Biggar, banded together to create the History Reclaimed Project. It has since registered as a private company. According to the Daily Mail, the group was established to battle Black Lives Matter’s ‘woke war on our great leaders’.[10] The company has overlapping membership with Restore Trust, a private company first established to block the National Trust’s efforts to tell the full history of its properties in the wake of the report co-authored by Fowler. This company has tried to get its candidates elected to the National Trust’s council, aiming to reverse the charity’s moves towards greater inclusivity. At least some of its members oppose the National Trust’s engagement with Gay Pride events and its rewilding projects.

Although obtuse about their funding model, there are indications that both History Reclaimed and Restore Trust are part of a network of conservative lobbying groups and ‘think tanks’ associated with addresses at Tufton Street in London.  One of six people in Restore Trust’s Meet the Team webpage is Neil Record, a billionaire former currency risk manager who backed the Institute of Economic Affairs, the think tank which encouraged Liz Truss’ minibudget in 2022. Record also chairs the Global Warming Policy Forum and ‘Net Zero Watch’, which believes that ‘a narrow “groupthink” and “cancel culture”’ guides climate change concerns.[11]  Zewditu Gebreyohanes, the co-author of the Policy Exchange report that misrepresented the Churchill College panel worked at Policy Exchange, is a former director of Restore Trust and is deputy editor at History Reclaimed. She was appointed by Nadine Dorries as a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is now a senior researcher at the Legatum Institute, which is directed by the former special adviser to Jacob Rees-Mogg.[12]

In 2023 the historian of technology Jenny Bulstrode published an article in the journal History and Technology arguing that the British industrialist Henry Cort’s patented process of rendering scrap metal into valuable bar iron was stolen from enslaved African metallurgists.[13] The article was well publicised in the New Scientist and the Guardian.[14] Alongside some more disinterested scholarly critique of her methods and sources, History Reclaimed member Lawrence Goldman wrote in the Telegraph that her paper ‘is evidence of how reason and facts are being suspended in the search for ever more ways to undermine the history of Britain and its empire …We must give Jenny Bulstrode every chance to explain herself. We must also expect University College London, where she teaches, to investigate what has gone on, as, on the face of it, this is a serious infringement of academic conventions and the pursuit of historical truth’. Bulstrode was then subjected to a furious response including serious personal threats.[15]

Last year also saw the publication of Nigel Biggar’s book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Biggar, a former Professor of Theology at Oxford, had a founding role in History Reclaimed, and is linked with Restore Trust. As noted, he first turned his attention to colonial history in defence of Cecil Rhodes’ Oriel College statue. This book, arising in part from his research programme at Oxford, is the first serious attempt since Gilley’s to lend intellectual credibility to the justification of colonialism. It was listed at number 10 in The Sunday Times nonfiction sales list and topped Amazon’s lists in a number of sub-categories. Like a scholarly monograph, it has extensive endnotes, stretching over 130 pages and a bibliography of over 30 pages. It purports to be a ‘balanced’, rigorously researched account of colonial practices and an analysis of their ethics. It has received glowing reviews in The Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Spectator and Amazon purchasers have titled their reviews ‘imperious’, ‘brilliant historical research’, and ‘at last a competent book on the subject’ of empire.

Biggar alleged that an unthinking ‘anti-colonialism’ is ‘fashionable’ in academia, ‘opening doors to posts, promotions and grants’. He argues that scholars of colonialism are brainwashed by Frantz Fanon’s ‘preference for “barbarous” vitality and irresponsibility over civilised reason and restraint’, and speculates that a ‘degenerate Christian sensibility’ results in ‘a perverse bid for supreme self-righteousness’, which in turn, drives critiques of colonialism.[16]

  • How to Respond?

This, then, is the public terrain into which scholars of colonialism now venture. How should we respond? I think we should start by being transparent about the trade-offs that have always been involved in using archival sources to write colonial history. As Hilary Mantel wrote, history is ‘no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that’.[17] If there is no objective and comprehensive basis for history writing though, what is it that distinguishes academic writing seeking impartiality from mere polemic?

The answer lies in the guidelines that academics use to assess credibility through peer review and scholarly debate. They should try to read the work of all other scholars who have written on their topic and reflect honestly upon their evidence and arguments. This means reading beyond only those scholars with whom they are disposed to agree. They should try to reflect equally upon the evidence at their disposal. For the most part this takes the form of texts written during the period they are studying and retained in various archives and collections. Whether qualitative or quantitative, this evidence is very different from the ‘data’ that repeatable experimental observations can yield for most scientists.[18]

Historians need to consider Mantel’s point that their sources of evidence are the writings of ‘fallible and biased witnesses.’ Not only that, but also the point that these witnesses’ records were the ones selected by institutions and individuals for preservation. Equally valid insights from other witnesses were never written down or never preserved. Writing about most people in the past who were illiterate, and about whom we have only scraps of evidence, mainly from the perspective of their social ‘superiors’, is an especially different proposition from conducting an experiment and recording one’s observations. A loose analogy would be a chemist able to see only a tiny fraction of the periodic table, and that fraction complied by someone with a preference for certain elements and a prejudice against others.

This question of a far-from-neutral selectivity for document storage and preservation, is especially acute in colonial contexts. A disproportionate number of the documents now available to colonial historians were generated by colonial officials, responsible for maintaining order over disenfranchised colonised people. They tended to look upon those people as potential sources of disorder. Their writings are redolent with stereotypes and infused with anxieties. While those anxieties and stereotypes are telling in themselves, historians cannot necessarily take their sources at their word.[19]

Whilst being healthily sceptical of the ‘evidence’ upon which they rely, competent and conscientious historians nevertheless try to develop their arguments as they engage with it through archival study and debate. They do not set out with an idea that they intend to ‘prove’ and stick with it stubbornly in the face of contradictory evidence. Whether they trust a text’s version of reality or not, they should never ignore it or misrepresent what its writer was seeking to convey. They try not to cherry-pick words or sentences to make it seem that witnesses were saying one thing, when they were saying another. Rather, they try to work out why witnesses recorded things in the way they did, often through triangulation with other sources.

Honesty and diligence in an historian are not the same thing as objectivity. Fastidious historians might read different sources, or even the same sources, and come to very different conclusions because they ask different questions of them or interpret them differently. It is impossible to remove the historian from their work. The starting point for credible historical research is not the supposition that the researcher is impartial. It is the recognition that they are prone to bias and the attempt to address it, sometimes even using that new and admitted bias to uncover hidden truths to set alongside equally biased established accounts. What may be surprising is how recently historians of colonialism have set about implementing these practices of reflection, mitigation and inclusion, albeit imperfectly.

Between J R Seeley’s founding the sub-discipline of imperial history with The Expansion of England in 1883 and the ‘subaltern studies’, Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and ‘cultural-turn’ approaches of the 1970s-90s, most practitioners considered the experiences of colonised people and women to be relatively unimportant.[20] In part this was because of the relative exclusion of sources from women and people of colour in the archives themselves. A survey of historians conducted in the 2010s yielded this response: ‘anybody who spent the late 1970s and early 1980s looking for hints that women were recorded in the documents they were reading … had to think about what was there and what wasn’t there at the same time.’[21] The same goes for the voices of most colonised people, with Gyartri Spivak famously pondering the ethics of trying to speak for those ‘subaltern’ peoples who bear no archival trace.[22]

But the biases of imperial history were also influenced by the characteristics of most of its practitioners. Along with many other professions, academic History was hard for women and people of colour to break into. The leading historian of Empire, Catherine Hall notes that ‘none of my generation of feminist historians started off in the universities – we had to wait for years to be accepted, working outside in adult education etc. And eventually things shifted.’[23] Things have still not shifted much in terms of the representation of people of colour in the upper echelons of the academy, with only a handful of Black professors.[24] It is not so much, then, that imperial History has suddenly been hijacked by people of a certain race, class and gender orientation; more that it has always had that mantle, albeit unacknowledged and for a long time uncontested.

The backlash that some historians are facing today is, in part, a reaction against the recognition and rejection of the unacknowledged assumptions that have long shaped our discipline. Recent interpretations of colonial and imperial history have added women, colonised and racialised people to the cast of characters whom the social historian of the working classes E P Thompson wished ‘to rescue … from the enormous condescension of posterity.’[25] This work tends to attract opprobrium from those who favoured the older perspectives. At the same time, it is evident that historians who want to swing the pendulum away from more exclusive, established, perspectives raise hackles among some, with what the latter see as over-correction.

Undoubtedly some historians have extracted moral parables from the evidence of colonial violence and racism encountered in their research. ‘In their zeal to dispel the lingering spirit of colonialism’, some focus almost exclusively on those characteristics rather than arenas of cooperation, collaboration and mutual benefit which also characterised Empire.[26] Yet there are certain, incontrovertible truths about colonialism that are being disavowed in the culture war and it is part of our job as historians to present them. Nigel Biggar and I have published our exchanges following a critical review of his book in which I pointed out that he had taken quotes from primary sources out of context, misrepresented what his sources were saying, and relied on contemporary right-wing polemicists rather than academic historians for his secondary sources.[27] But I am now working with 12 colleagues, all academic specialists in British colonial history, on an edited collection to be published shortly by Hurst called The Truth About Empire.

We intend this to be a collective response to the weaponization of our field and an opportunity to present the work of experts on some of the most controversial aspects of colonial history. We leave it to readers to judge the strength of our analysis and decide how those truths should be deployed in the dilemmas facing society today, but we do note that there are aspects of the past upon which there is considerable academic consensus. They include the following:

Britons were not monsters. Many protested colonial violence, proposed better ways of colonising or not colonising at all, and, when given the opportunity, were very sincerely committed to welfare improvements for subjects of colour. The British Empire should not be considered in isolation. It co-existed with other European empires and was the successor of other empires through recorded history.

Seizing control of colonies was usually a matter of violent invasion and occupation rather than consent; trans-Atlantic Slavery profoundly shaped the modern world and contributed significantly to Britain’s Industrial Revolution; the abolition of slavery was the result of unremitting resistance and organisation by Black people as well as a remarkable shift in moral discourse particularly, but not exclusively, in Britain. It did not erase the racial exploitation underpinning colonialism and antislavery actually legitimated further conquests; policies of assimilation directed at Indigenous children in settler colonies (stolen generations in Australia, Residential Schools in Canada) were generally implemented without parental consent and allowed abuse, neglect and intergenerational trauma, and for most of the four hundred years of Empire, colonial governments cared relatively little for the welfare of subjects of colour, investing in development schemes only late on and in response to anticolonial agitation. Unfortunately the efforts of well-meaning British colonists, missionaries and officials were insufficient to erase the structural nature of colonial racism.

To come back to where I began, in his book Culture Wars, Hunter developed a shorthand for the binary positions that he saw emerging: the ‘impulse towards orthodoxy’ versus ‘the impulse towards progressivism’ (Hunter, 43). When it comes to colonial history, it seems to me, that while the impulse towards orthodoxy has driven Biggar, the Telegraph, right wing think tanks and certain MPs to defend the morality of Empire, engagement with the Empire’s racism-saturated archival records, has driven most of its scholars towards progressivism.


[1] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America, Basic Books, 1992, 42.

[2] Hunter, Culture Wars, 43.

[3] https://iasculture.org/news/le-figaro-interviews-james

[4] For an example of academic objections, see Joseph McQuade, ‘Colonialism was a disaster and the facts prove it’, https://theconversation.com/colonialism-was-a-disaster-and-the-facts-prove-it-84496

[5] Mark Bridge, ‘Don’t be bullied’.

[6] https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/snapshotsofempire/2024/02/28/winston-churchill-in-the-culture-war-defending-an-icon/

[7]‘Written evidence submitted by Professor Corinne Fowler, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester’ (OSB57) Online Safety Bill, 2 June 2022, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmpublic/OnlineSafetyBill/memo/OSB57.htm, accessed 29 November 2023.

[8] Corinne Fowler, ‘Public debate is important. Waves of press and political attacks damage it’, Hacked Off, 11 March 2021, https://hackinginquiry.org/public-debate-is-important-waves-of-press-and-political-attacks-damage-it/, accessed 29 November 2023.

[9] Corinne Fowler, ‘Inclusive histories: Responding to the ‘culture war’ through engagement and dialogue’, Museums Association, https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/decolonising-museums/inclusive-histories-responding-to-the-culture-war/, accessed 29 November 2023.

[10] https://www.mailplus.co.uk/tv/the-michael-crick-report/101025/how-history-reclaimed-are-battling-blms-woke-war-on-british-history

[11] https://bylinetimes.com/2022/10/27/the-right-wing-bid-to-capture-the-national-trust-exposed/; https://www.netzerowatch.com/who-we-are/

[12] https://li.com/team/zewditu-gebreyohanes-senior-researcher/

[13] Jenny Bulstrode, ‘Black Metallurgists and the Making of the Industrial Revolution’, History and Technology, 39:1, 2023, 1-41, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2023.2220991; https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jul/05/industrial-revolution-iron-method-taken-from-jamaica-briton, accessed 4/01/24; Amy E. Slaton and Tiago Saraiva, ‘Editorial’, History and Technology, 2023, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2023.2275357

[14] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2380941-english-industrialist-stole-iron-technique-from-black-metallurgists/; https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jul/05/industrial-revolution-iron-method-taken-from-jamaica-briton.

[15] https://twitter.com/aljhlester/status/1725161655019929659, and comments, accessed 4/01/24

[16] Nigel Biggar, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, William Colins, London, 2023, 291, n.14, 427, 295.

[17] Hilary Mantel, ‘Why I became a Historical Novelist’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/03/hilary-mantel-why-i-became-a-historical-novelist, accessed 5/12/23.

[18] This renders the idea of a ‘replicability’ crisis in the humanities suspect: https://twitter.com/aljhlester/status/1727244097830666585

[19] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain Book Subtitle: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton University Press, 2009.

[20] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010. British historians also assumed, at least until the mid-twentieth century, that it was entirely natural to desire continued British global power. See Richard Drayton, ‘Where Does the World Historian Write From? Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism’ Journal of Contemporary History, 46, 3, 2011, 671-685.

[21] Burton, ‘Archive Stories’.

[22] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan, 1988, 271-313. Another respondent to Antoinette Burton’s survey reported: ‘It is often hard to find even the mediated voices of African women in the colonial archives, because Colonial and Foreign Office representatives generally did not interview African women and seldom reproduced their translated testimonies in correspondence, let alone reports. British officials privileged the opinions of male representatives of African communities’: Burton, ‘Archive Stories’.

[23] Email correspondence, 23/01/24.

[24] ‘Among UK-national staff, 96.1% of university historians are White, a figure … higher than in most other subjects. Underrepresentation is particularly stark for Black historians, who make up less than 1% of UK university-based History staff’: Royal Historical Society, Race, Ethnicity & Equality Report: https://royalhistsoc.org/racereport/#:~:text=Among%20UK%2Dnational%20staff%2C%2096.1,UK%20university%2Dbased%20History%20staff, accessed 26/01/24.

[25] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, London, 2013, 12.

[26] My thanks to Stuart Ward for this phrase in personal correspondence, and to Richard Huzzey for helping clarify the argument.

[27] Alan Lester, ‘The British Empire Rehabilitated?’, Bella Caledonia, March 2023: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2023/03/07/the-british-empire-rehabilitated/; Alan Lester, The British Empire in the Culture War: Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 51:4, 2023, 763-795, DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2023.2209947; Nigel Biggar (2023) On Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning: A Reply to Alan Lester, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 51:4, 2023, 796-824, DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2023.2209948, and Alan Lester, ‘On Colonialism: A response to Biggar’s Reply’, https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/snapshotsofempire/2023/06/02/on-colonialism-a-response-to-nigel-biggars-reply/, accessed 8/12/23’ https://twitter.com/GordonsSch/status/1710335443479269837

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