In April 2024, the Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch gave a speech in which she sought to deny the extent to which Britain’s economic trajectory was reliant on colonialism. When criticised by William Dalrymple, Toby Young, responded with this tweet, linking to an article in support of Badenoch by Nigel Biggar.

This is my quickfire response to Badenoch’s and Biggar’s case:

Biggar makes three historical arguments, each of which is tendentious and based on the construction of straw men:

He starts with the economic foundations of the South African War, arguing that the antisemitic Hobson’s thesis that Cecil Rhodes and other financiers and mining magnates wished to “maximise their profits by grabbing the Transvaal goldfields” was wrong. Biggar cites a 1965 book by Le May and a 2003 article by Judd and Surridge which both argue that any reading of the war *solely* as the result of a conspiracy brought about by Rhodes and other mining magnates has to be dismissed as too simplistic. Of course it does. No specialist historian of the war argues that it was *just* the machinations of Rhodes or any one lobby group that brought about the war.

But all agree that this lobbying was a very significant factor in its genesis. Had there been no British financial interests in mining the gold beneath the Transvaal, there would have been no major push for a British war to overthrow its Boer government and institute a more pro-British one. It took more than *just* this lobby for Milner to provoke that war, though.

Saul Dubow, an actual expert, has a chapter on this in,  which gives the nuanced view of specialist historians. He concludes: “Biggar has every right to take issue with scholars who are critical of the British Empire … But readers should be aware that today’s culture-war apologists for empire are themselves involved in a deeply partisan project and that Biggar is one of their tribunes.”

Biggar’s next straw man is the supposedly common view that ‘that profits from the slave trade made “an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development”, associated with the work of “neo-Marxist, the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams”. In fact, Williams was talking about the economic contribution of slavery as a whole, and not just profits from the trade in enslaved people. The difference is key, as we will see.

Biggar cannot help having a dig first at Sathnam Sanghera because, in Empireworld, he describes Williams’ book as “compulsory reading”. Biggar infers that in recommending Williams’ book, Sanghera is claiming that “the slave trade was ‘solely and entirely responsible for industrial development’”, something contradicted by Williams himself. This is entirely disingenuous. Nowhere does Sanghera say that the slave trade was ‘solely and entirely responsible’. Indeed he explicitly notes that it was not. To use Biggar’s own words directed against William Dalrymple, either Biggar is “ignorant” of what Sanghera actually wrote, “Or he’s careless, … Or he’s lying”.

Next Biggar cites a late 1960s piece by Roger Anstey which minimised the effect of slavery “by calculating that the profits from the slave trade fell far below Williams’ estimate and could not have financed the industrial revolution to a significant extent”. He reinforces this from another cherry-picked source, David Richardson, “who estimated that profits from the slave trade probably contributed under 1% of total domestic investment around 1790” and cites David Brion Davis, who declared in 2010 that William’s thesis “has now been wholly discredited by other scholars”.

Biggar is clearly aware that he has given only a partial account of what Williams and his critics are discussing here, focusing only on direct profits from the slave trade, and not the economic contribution of the trans-Atlantic slave system as a whole.

The profits made by those engaged in the trafficking of captive Africans across the Atlantic, were one component of that system. But once on the plantations, these captives were exploited to produce commodities, the trade in which was also significant, and also leveraged as assets for financial loans and investment. Biggar tries to deflect from this by citing Eltis and Engerman’s finding that “Sugar was just one of hundreds of industries in a complex economy; and while sugar was one of the larger industries, its linkages with the rest of the economy and its role as an ‘engine’ of economic growth compare poorly with textiles, coal, iron ore, and those British agricultural activities which provided significant inputs to industry.” He is of course overlooking the facts that cotton was also produced by enslaved workers in the trans-Atlantic system, and that investments in coal mining and agricultural improvement were financed in part by slave ownership.

No historian argues that the slave system as a whole drove industrial growth *alone*, but the consensus among specialist historians is that it was a substantial accelerator. Once again, Biggar has erected a strawman to deflect from this consensus.

The latest research *is* mentioned by Biggar where he quotes Berg and Hudson: “Slavery, directly or indirectly, set in motion innovations in manufacturing, agriculture… shipping, banking, international trade, finance and investment, insurance…”, all of which fed into industrialisation. How does he deal with this? By suggesting, on the basis of pure speculation and no evidence whatsoever, that “many of the beneficial innovations would probably have been stimulated by other causes” anyway. Serious historians – those driven to understand rather than to fight culture war – do not argue that if we take away a known cause for an event, that event would have happened anyway!

Biggar next emphasises the costs to Britain of abolishing slavery. He seems unaware that in doing so, he is simply reinforcing its prior significance. His claim that “by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, the 19th Century expense of suppression was certainly bigger than the 18th Century benefits” is nonsense. Much of the expense of suppression was justified by the strategic need to ensure that other nations did not continue to profit from legalised trafficking after Britain and other nations had abolished their own ‘trades’, and those captives liberated from other nations slave ships were assigned as unpaid ‘apprentice’ labour to British settlers rather than returned home. I doubt that their theoretical labour costs are factored into Biggar’s balance sheet, let alone the conquest of African nations justified as antislavery measures but enabling settler farming in Kenya and palm oil production in Nigeria among other enterprises favouring the British economy.

Biggar’s argument that Britain made a tremendous self-sacrifice by abolishing the slave trade through “the loss of business caused by abolition to British manufacturers, shippers, merchants and bankers who dealt with the West Indies” and “the higher prices paid by British consumers for sugar” simply  contradicts his earlier refutation of its importance. Furthermore Biggar seems unaware that, even after emancipation in the Caribbean, British rule did not mean the end of slavery. As Richard Huzzey notes in the forthcoming The Truth About Empire , “In India, British authorities had moved to change the English vocabulary by which they referred to forced labourers and to avoid actively recognising—or, indeed, disrupting—‘traditional’ customs of coerced and hereditary labour. As Suzanne Miers and others have shown, this model of ‘delegalisation’ rather than emancipation would be applied in the ‘protectorates’ developed to exclude British colonial officials from responsibility for emancipating enslaved Africans within African territories claimed for the empire. Indeed, in the period after the First World War, Lugard would promote to the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization his policies in British Nigeria that codified the definitions of slavery and ‘native labour’. The anti-slavery policies that tolerated ongoing forms of slavery and forced labour pose challenges to any moral assessment of imperial rule.”

Huzzey’s verdict is that “Historians disagree in good faith over the historical question of the extent to which abolitionist moralities informed imperial policies; this reflects scholarly judgement rather than political point-scoring in the present. Biggar’s approach—of assuming anti-slavery and empire stand trial jointly for a moral verdict today—sits uneasily with historical enquiry into the causes, motives, rhetorics, logics, and moralities of the past”. 

The next straw man question to refute? Can the economic effects of British imperial dominance “be reduced to Britain’s leeching wealth from exploited subject peoples?” No serious historian argues that one should reduce the complex economic effects to such a simplistic conclusion, although they do see economic exploitation as one of the key drivers of imperial expansion. Obviously. It always is.

Biggar cites his favourite economic historian of India, Thirthankar Roy, to refute the claims of the politician Shashi Tharoor and show that “the British Empire’s commitment to free trade gave Indian entrepreneurs new opportunities to grow”. Commitment to free trade was enforced when it was in Britain’s interests, as when the British went to war with China to enforce trade in banned opium, but of course it also favoured wealthy Indian elites. Roy is the first to admit that the colonial state in India did little to help ordinary Indians and India did not constitute the empire as a whole.

Biggar seems to forget that Britons made money by taking indigenous people’s land, growing commercial crops on it and using colonised people as a controlled, cheap workforce, in most colonies most of the time. Details like that – actually an overwhelmingly evident characteristic of Empire – need not detain us.

Absurdly, Biggar mentions “colonial officials barring Lever Brothers from acquiring concessions in Nigeria on which to establish palm-oil processing mills with widespread hinterlands, since Africans were already producing for the world markets and generating tax revenue and because the alienation of large areas of land risked provoking native opposition”, but neglects to mention that such opposition was mounting precisely because these Africans had already been conquered and dispossessed in order to establish British mills.

Inevitably, we come to the railways in India. Equally inevitably, the attempts to maintain racial segregation on them do not get a mention. Inevitably too, Biggar notes that Australia was “between the 1860s and 1890s, … the richest country on earth”, without noting that its original inhabitants were being ‘cleared’ from the land through a series of massacres, to make way for British settlers at this very time. Hardly a case of Britain brining economic benefit to its subject peoples.

With all the expected hypocrisy and argumentative techniques of the culture war, Biggar suggests that Kemi Badenoch is rejecting the very thing that she is promoting: “historically dubious, economically misleading, and politically opportunistic” claims about the past.

The Institute of Economic Affairs Wades In

The following day, the Institute of Economic Affairs published an article endorsing Kemi Badenoch’s denial. This is my response to that:

Now the Institute of Economic Affairs, the right wing think tank that understood economic affairs so well that it inspired Liz Truss’ disastrous mini-budget, is getting in on the act of supporting @KemiBadenoch’s historical denialism. Let’s look at the ‘argument’ here. It starts with the usual straw man. Historians have demonstrated in thousands of research publications that British investors’ ability to appropriate land and subordinate people in some 40 overseas colonies, ensuring a supply of commodities such as tea, cotton, opium, rubber, meat and wool produced with free or low cost labour, made a significant contribution to Britain’s economic growth. Because this is so self-evident, to challenge it would be absurd. To make any political capital out of attacking those who highlight it, Badenoch and her supporters have to pretend that their ‘opponents’ position is more extreme. They therefore object to an invented position: that Britain owed *all* of its economic success to slavery or colonialism. “Empire Didn’t Make Britain Rich”. It doesn’t matter that no one is claiming that Empire *alone* did make Britain rich; in refuting it this invented claim, the intention is to undermine the case that colonial exploitation played any substantial role at all.

In the following posts I’ll show how they then fabricate ‘evidence’ to make their own extreme and denialist case.

Next comes the lie:


Intrigued by the evidence that purportedly showed Williams to be plain wrong, when most specialist historians now qualify rather than reject his argument, and even more intrigued by the ridiculous assertion that British business people and settlers invested in empire to make themselves poorer, I clicked on the ‘evidence’ link. It took me to another article by the same IEA author and this ‘proof’:


So: even the source cherry picked to downplay the economic significance of the colonies suggests that more than 15% of domestic investment came from entrepreneurs who invested in them. I’d say that was “substantial”, especially given that it is likely an underestimate. One thing we do know is that, when just those 800,000 people enslaved and ‘owned’ mainly by Britons in the Caribbean, Cape & Mauritius were freed in 1834, their value as ‘assets’ amounted to £20M, which was 40% of annual government revenue in that year.

The next assertion is risible: that the military costs of empire outweighed its benefits, rendering it loss-making. The writer may well have a point – and it was a point made by many contemporaries- that most Britons would have been even better off if this money was spent not on overseas conquests, dispossession and occupation but on tax relief at home. Who knows? But it was spent, on colonisation. And I happen to know, because I’ve researched in the relevant archives, that both of the two main wings of colonial governance- the East India Company and the Colonial Office, kept a very close eye on military expenditure as well as other costs.

At times, these government organs did indeed feel that such costs were not worth it. In the 1850s for example, the Colonial Office told governors of the Cape Colony to stop fighting wars of expansion on behalf of the British settlers as they weren’t worth it. For most of the time though, as you might expect, they adjudged that the returns to British investors and settlers made such expenses worthwhile. See Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire If Britons had continued to invest in the maintenance of colonial rule and the denial of self-determination to their colonial subjects against their own aggregate material interests for over 300 years, what does that say about the spirit of British entrepreneurship?

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