The Drayton Icon and Intellectual Vice

Published by Mary Eberstadt on


Some attacks are best absorbed, not fended off. Some accusations are best let past, not answered. Life is far too short to slap down every slight, and those of a determined ill will won’t be moved anyway. Besides, too thin a skin betrays a touchy insecurity that suggests the critic’s barbs have found their target.

For those reasons, I have hesitated to respond to Richard Drayton’s essay, “Biggar vs Little Britain: God, War, Union, Brexit and Empire in Twenty-First Century Conservative Ideology,” which was published last month in a collection entitled, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain.1 His assault is at once morally vicious and rationally weak. Moreover, it displays such an incontinent hostility that it’s doubtful anything I say would make an impression on him or his allies.

Nevertheless, Drayton’s diatribe does reveal something important—not much about me, something about him, but mostly about the vices that fester in certain reaches of our universities, which serve to undermine rational dialogue and public norms of liberal civility. For that reason, I take up the cudgels here.

What Richard Drayton has written seems to have two aims. The first is to achieve some insight into the mentality of the Brexiteers, by treating me as an icon—that is, a particular picture that opens a window onto a much larger reality. As he puts it:

[A] journey into the mind-world of Biggar can help us to understand the larger, and less articulate and visible cultural currents in late twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. It may provide insight into how some of the embers of empire continue to burn, and even to kindle obscure new flames…. The Biggar phenomenon is a sign of the times to which we should pay attention. (pp. 143, 145)

His second aim is to trash the authority of anything I have to say about Britain’s imperial past or future global role, and thereby to expose Brexit as a delusion.

Flattered as I am by the cultural importance Drayton attaches to me, I’m not going to dwell on his Brexit thesis. That’s because I’m unaware of any hard and comprehensive empirical data that substantiates the claim that voters were moved to vote Leave in the June 2016 referendum by “imperial nostalgia.” What’s more, I voted to Remain (just), which ought to be a rather large fly in Drayton’s narrative ointment, but somehow isn’t.2 It’s true that I believe that Britain should continue its imperial tradition of playing a global role, sometimes deploying hard power in faraway places to uphold international order and halt massive atrocities. But that’s a view shared by plenty of Remainers and repudiated by plenty of Leavers. The proposition that imperial nostalgia is a major force behind Brexit just doesn’t stack up.

So, let me turn to Drayton’s attempted trashing and what it reveals. One of its extraordinary features is how very personal it is. He takes an odd, almost obsessive interest in my genealogy, upbringing, and career. It drips with an ugly condescension, choosing to describe my stint as Chaplain of Oriel College, for example, as a “rather snug billet” (p. 145). (Drayton might think an opening salary of £13,000 and responsibility for coping with student suicides and college funerals snug, but others won’t.)

At one point here, his antipathy plainly overreaches itself. The matter itself is trivial, but what it shows is not. In the story he concocts, I was a protégé of the Anglican evangelical theologian, Jim Packer, followed him to Regent College in Vancouver, and was eventually “fixed up” with a post at Latimer House in Oxford, which Packer himself had helped found (p. 145). The insinuation is that I didn’t earn my position; I got it by cosy, uncompetitive, slightly dodgy means. But this story is pure fantasy. I met Packer only once in my life, for an hour in early 1976. I went to Regent College in 1977 and left in 1979, before he had arrived there. I completed my master’s degree for Regent while I was a student at the University of Chicago in 1981. In 1985, I responded to an advertisement for a post at Latimer House, made a formal application, was interviewed, and offered the job. Packer had nothing to do with it; he didn’t “fix up” anything. Drayton’s narrative is simply false.

This is not the only instance of a gratuitously unkind insinuation. Another appears when he notes that I attended Monkton Combe School, and then comments that “Sir Richard Dearlove, best known as Tony Blair’s head of MI6 during the production of the ‘dodgy dossier,’ is another Old Monktonian” (p. 145). What on earth has that got to do with me? It can only be relevant, if the whispered logic is this: Biggar went to Monkton; Dearlove also went to Monkton; Dearlove was dodgy; so is Biggar. Drayton doesn’t say that out loud, of course, but he poisons the air with suggestion.

Drayton makes several more false claims. At one point, he tells us that all but one Oxford historian “has run as quickly and as far as he or she can from Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project’” (p. 149). In fact, 25 historians have taken part in the project to date, including four from Cambridge and six from Oxford. The data are available for all to see on the project’s webpage.3 He goes on to say that I avoid anything that might contradict my pro-empire “intuitions” (p. 149), ignoring hostile facts (p. 150). Yet, on the same webpage, which he has clearly read, I am entirely frank about the morally ambiguous record of the British Empire:

In the British case, on the one hand, [empire] presided over the ‘genocide’ of Tasmanian aboriginals in the early 1800s, the Irish Famine in 1845-52, and the massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919. On the other hand, it suppressed the Atlantic and African slave-trades after 1807, granted black Africans the vote in Cape Colony seventeen years before the United States granted it to African Americans, and offered the only centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941.4

And in a Times article in November 2017, I made it clear that I think that their imperial past bequeaths Britons reasons for shame, as well as pride.5

He further claims that I “wittingly or unwittingly, directed the swarm of wasps of right-wing Twitter trolls and Daily Mail columnists to attack the Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal” (p. 145). Observe the equivocation, “wittingly or unwittingly.” If Drayton had any evidence that I had wittingly directed the trolling, he’d have provided it. But he didn’t, because it doesn’t exist. And as for unwitting direction, how exactly is that supposed to work? I can cause something unwittingly, but I can’t direct it, by definition. So, one part of the claim is groundless and the other part, incoherent. But that didn’t stop Drayton from making it anyway.6

In addition to making malicious insinuations and false claims, Drayton likes to stand on the authority of his own professional expertise. He did this on the only occasion we’ve met—during a 2016 debate in the Oxford Union on the proposition that “Rhodes Must Fall.” At one point he argued that, if he were to presume to offer his opinions on the theology of the eucharist, he, as an historian, wouldn’t deserve to be taken seriously. The implication was clear: that no one should take my view of Rhodes seriously, since I am a mere theologian. My position was that everybody’s opinions deserve to be taken on their merits.

Now, after complaining that I failed to identify him as the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History in a subsequent article,7 he counters that history is not about “views” at all, but about “achieving robust and measured knowledge of the past by the weighing of evidence and interpretations based on deep immersion in contemporary sources and traditions of scholarship” (p. 150). The implication of this is that only professional historians of empire are in a position to speak the truth about the imperial past—and the rest of us should know our place. In one sense that is true, but in another, it’s astonishingly naïve. It’s true that only those who have dug deep into archives or archaeological sites can tell us what the hard, empirical data is. But when it comes to making sense of that data, all manner of anthropological, moral, and political assumptions come into play.8

Strangely enough, Tory historians and Whig historians, pro-Western historians and Marxist historians, interpret the same data differently—because of their conflicting philosophical views. Unfortunately, since historians are not philosophers, they’re not always very good at recognising the extent to which these views shape their reading of the data. Evidently, Drayton is one such historian. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to understand that when it comes to the ethical evaluation of empire, he doesn’t have a professional leg to stand on. As a professional ethicist, I do. Yet if I were to claim a monopoly of wisdom about the ethics of empire, I doubt that he would doff his cap. Nor should he.

So nor will I. Drayton chides me for arguing that Rhodes was not a racist on the basis of “a single account of Rhodes having Zulu friends as a child, and his will’s intention that the Rhodes Scholarships be open to all South African races (by which the old rogue of course meant only Afrikaners as well as English, not Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Malays, Indians, or Chinese)” (p. 149). But, once again, he misrepresents. He fails to mention a third reason, which I gave in my 2016 Standpoint article: namely, that Rhodes did not believe that Africans were destined by biology to be forever culturally inferior and that they could become civilised.9 (Drayton might regard that as racist; I don’t. The difference between us lies not in the historical data, however, but in our ethical views.)

He also neglects to mention two reasons I gave for doubting the conventional interpretation of Rhodes’s stipulation in his will that his scholarships should be awarded without regard for “race”: that by this he meant only the English and the Afrikaners. The first is that, while much of his career had been devoted to fostering reconciliation between the two white races, after the end of the 1896 Matabeleland uprising he told a friend that he intended to turn his attention to building confidence between blacks and whites.10 (As an earnest of this he had already bought back 100,000 acres of prime farming land from white settlers and given much of it to the dispossessed Ndebele. This, presumably, explains why, after Rhodes’ funeral in 1902, the Ndebele leaders agreed to tend his grave—and did so for decades afterwards.11) The second reason is that Rhodes’s will was not drafted in South Africa, where “race,” unqualified, probably would have had the narrower connotation, but in England, where it would not.12

At two further points Drayton derides my use of history. One is where I refer to a moment during the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, when General Montgomery ordered a unit to undertake an operation, even though he knew that it might involve a casualty rate of 100 percent. This, I say, “teaches that a certain kind of professional callousness is a condition of military success.” Drayton comments: “It is quite extraordinary: from a story told about Montgomery by a single historian, Biggar feels able to deduce a truth which can somehow affect ethical thinking in some enduring portable way” (p. 149). But he misunderstands. I’m not deducing a controversial ethical point from a single historical fact—which would be a slender basis indeed. Rather, I’m using a single historical fact to bring to mind a general truth that is obvious once it’s contemplated: that those who carry responsibility—most notably generals in the field, but also hospital surgeons in pre-anaesthetic days and heads of downsizing university departments—sometimes have to make emotionally difficult decisions that they know will expose their own people to grave risk or harm. And in order to make such decisions, they have to thicken their skins—make themselves callous. The historical reference is a revealing illustration, not a deduction.

The Drayton Icon and Intellectual Vice

At the foot of the same page, Drayton takes me to task for appealing “repeatedly” to Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923.13 He complains that I do so “without noting the accusations of academic fraud raised by its critics, nor any alternative histories of that crisis,” and he cites a fine 2018 article by Ian McBride (pp. 149-50 and 155n.50). In fact, I have referred to Hart’s work on just two occasions. In In Defence of War, I used it to illustrate what I take to be another general truth that, once articulated, is obvious—namely, that violent revolutionary movements tend to be populated by young, unattached, and often frustrated males.14 That is not, I think, controversial. Then, in Between Kin and Cosmopolis, I invoked The IRA and its Enemies, in order to substantiate two historical claims: that the behaviour of the British “Black and Tans” during the Republican insurgency had the counter-productive effect of causing most Irish people to transfer their loyalty to nascent Republican institutions; and that the IRA’s campaign of assassination and guerrilla war was “less than scrupulously discriminate.”15 Again, the first claim is not disputed. The dispute focuses on the support that Hart gave the second claim, when he concluded that the killing of Protestants in Dunmanway and the Bandon Valley in April 1922 was driven by “sectarian antagonism … interwoven with political hysteria and local vendettas.”16

What Ian McBride concludes about the controversy over what he call’s Hart’s “brilliant, prize-winning monograph … remarkable for its combination of quantitative as well as qualitative research … [which] was hailed, with much justice, as an instant classic,”17 is this. On the one hand, there is “the obvious and easily substantiated fact that the Bandon Valley killings were not typical of the IRA campaign as a whole.”18 On the other hand:

It is possible that the Bandon Valley killings saw a number of scores impulsively settled at a time when local IRA volunteers were not only free from the control of their commanders but knew there was little prospect of retaliation from crown forces. None of the elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship affects fundamentally his profoundly disenchanted picture of revolutionary violence as “an intimate war,” driven by tit-for-tat cycles, or as directed at unarmed individuals kidnapped or killed near their own homes.19

When all is said and done, then, the only qualification that the controversy over Hart’s work might require of my use of him is the addition of the word “sometimes” to the beginning of my phrase, “less than scrupulously discriminate.” Drayton’s complaint is almost completely irrelevant and amounts to pedantry, not argument.

The truth is that Drayton never really argues at all. He never takes what I actually say and wrestles methodically with its reasons. Instead, he fabricates caricatures that can be brushed aside without further comment. So, for example, he tells us that Biggar makes “an ethical case for torture, or as he prefers to call it, ‘aggressive interrogation’” (pp. 144, 148). But I don’t. On the contrary, I distinguish between torture and aggressive interrogation, and argue that there should be absolute legal right against both, even though there might be a rare case where aggressive interrogation is morally justified.20

Then he reports that I argue “in defence of the killing of wounded combatants on the battlefield as an ethical option (since Afghan rebels have no modern medical care), but against euthanasia within the West, because here we have the means to cure and relieve pain” (p. 144). But this fumbles the exact point, implying that my distinction is between medically primitive Afghanistan and the medically sophisticated West, and hinting that it is racist. However, the distinction I actually make is between uncivil conditions and civil ones: what may be permitted in the extra-ordinary, uncivil conditions of war should not be normalised in the civil conditions of peacetime.

On another occasion, Drayton, noting that I was born just fifty miles west of the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle, asserts that:

Biggar’s … pro-empire violence apologetics, and his closely linked “just war” arguments and justifications for torture, are certainly in continuity with how Carlyle … found fine words to defend the brutal repression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 when British troops killed 439 people, flogged hundreds with cat-o-nine tails made up mostly of brass piano wire, killed pregnant women, even smashed babies’ heads. (p. 148)

While his footnotes suggest that he has read my book on “just war” reasoning (pp. 152n.6, 155n.50), he has somehow managed not to grasp a basic and familiar point—namely, that, to be morally justified, violence has to satisfy two criteria: proportionality and discrimination. No matter who is being violent, be they imperial troops or anti-imperial rebels, everyone is subject to the same requirements. From the description given, it seems quite clear that the conduct of British troops in Jamaica in 1865 was ethically indefensible.

Finally, Drayton takes what I’ve written about the duty of national loyalty and accuses me of being “untroubled by the risk that a love of kin can become a kind of idolatry” (147). Yet, I have always been unequivocal in saying that no nation-state is eternal or divine, and that none deserves absolute loyalty; and I have described both Romantic nationalism in general, and Scottish nationalism in particular, as idolatrous.21 I have also made crystal clear that, in my view, national loyalty is limited and qualified by obligations to other peoples.22 Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, Drayton seems unable to hear what I have said loud and clear on many occasions. He reads, but he doesn’t comprehend.

I think I’ve now done enough to show what I think of Richard Drayton’s attempted critique of me and my work, and why I think it. It’s of little value for what it says about me. It’s more important for what it shows about him. But it’s most important for what it reveals, through him, about the ethos that prevails in certain reaches of the academic world. As we’ve seen, Drayton’s thinking has taken the form of a false interpretation of data, several gratuitous and malicious ad hominem insinuations, a host of misrepresentations, the pulling of professional rank, irrelevant pedantry, distorting caricatures, and a complete failure to engage carefully and rationally with what I actually say. Thereby, it has given expression to the following intellectual vices: carelessness, injustice, uncharity, hubris, and evasiveness. Evidently, these are motivated by a zealous political hostility that so possesses him as to rob him of reason and scruple. This zeal will not brook contradiction; it won’t entertain the possibility that it might be mistaken. So instead of letting a contrary position stand, observing it carefully, doing it justice, and letting it provoke thought—which risks giving rise to doubt—it has to be manhandled into the shape of a risible straw-man to be brushed aside with ease.

Now, it might be that “Biggar vs Little Britain” is a unique lapse. It might be that Richard Drayton is normally the very model of responsible academic behaviour, and that it’s only something about me that causes him to lose his rag. This is possible but unlikely. After all, the root of the problem appears to lie in his moral-political convictions, which, so long as he has held them, are bound to have shaped his interpretation of historical data throughout his career. It’s more likely that Drayton’s vices have been indulged, and even applauded, by those teaching him, appointing him, managing him, and awarding him prizes—at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, the University of Virginia, and now King’s College London. Certainly, those same vices have been displayed in the behaviour of several of his Oxbridge and London allies, as I have consistently experienced them since the row over “Ethics and Empire” first broke out in December 2017.23 So, no, Richard Drayton is not an isolated case. He opens a particular window onto a much more general problem. He, too, is an icon.

The problem that Drayton illustrates, however, is not just narrowly academic, but more broadly public. For sure, the intellectual vices that he and his allies exhibit destroy the possibility of fruitful dialogue with academic colleagues like me. For no useful purpose can be served by trying to converse with people, whose objections are unconstrained by the basic rules of civility, who will not listen, who can’t do justice, and who are too insecure to risk thought. Under those conditions, to attempt communication merely invites heat, not light.

But much, much worse are the wider, public ramifications. This is because generations of students who pass through the zealous hands of Drayton and his ilk will be rewarded for sharing their prejudices and imitating their vices. And then today’s students will become tomorrow’s citizens, voters, journalists, MPs, and political leaders. So, if we care about the future of rational public discourse among us, and if we care to keep political conflict within civilised bounds, then we should start to worry about the illiberal likes of the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History. And we should start to ask university leaders to justify their rewarding and promoting—and funders, their supporting—politically corrosive intellectual vice that harms us all.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and director of the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project at the University of Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter @NigelBiggar

Notes and References:

1 S. Ward and A. Rasch, eds, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2019). Drayton is Rhodes Professor of Imperial History is at King’s College London. 

2 Drayton claims that my 2016 blog, “The Nation-State and the Case for Remaining in the EU,” comprised an argument for leaving the EU (p. 147). (No longer available at its original address, most of it is reported here: [accessed 17 August 2019]). But he is wrong, as the concluding two sentences make perfectly clear: “There may well be good reasons for Britain to remain in the EU But if that is so, the unchristian nature, or the obsolescence, of the nation-state is not one of them.”

3 To be scrupulously fair to Drayton, not all the data now publicly available had been posted online when Embers of Empire went to press. Still, had he been a more careful historian, he would not have relied on online data. He would have emailed me to confirm his web-based perception. Had he done so, I would happily have corrected it. But he didn’t.

4 In “Biggar vs Little Britain,” Drayton slaps my wrists for the “schoolboy error” of confusing the date of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (1833) with that of the abolition of the slave trade (1807) (p. 149). He is, of course, quite right and the date has been corrected. 

5 Unfortunately, the copy-editor’s title obscured this: “Don’t Feel Guilty about our Colonial History,” The Times, 30 November 2017.

6 Drayton omits to mention why Dr Priyamvada Gopal became the object of criticism—namely, her vituperative online abuse of anyone who doesn’t share her view of (British) Empire as essentially racist and violent, together with her explicit attempt to have my “Ethics and Empire” project “shut down.” (See Nigel Biggar, “‘Ethics and Empire’ and Free Speech—Some Home Truths,” Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Hilary Term 2018, p. 4). Nor does he mention his own part in that attempt as a signatory of the intentionally repressive “Collective statement on ‘Ethics and Empire‘” (21 December 2017). I describe this as “intentionally repressive” for the following reasons: (i) the statement was addressed, not to me, but to my university; (ii) it did not intend to inaugurate rational dialogue, since only one the 200 signatories (not Drayton) has made any overture in such a direction in the 20 months since; (iii) instead, the statement was entirely focused on attacking the University’s support of my project, the word “support” appearing five times; and (iv) Gopal’s name appears right at the top of the five leading signatories, out of alphabetical order, implying that she was the statement’s prime mover.

7 Instead, I described him as “an historian of Africa.” That was a mistake. I overestimated his relevant authority: as far as I can tell, he has no special expertise in the biography of Cecil Rhodes or the history of the British Empire in South Africa.

8 This, I take it, is essentially the point that the historian Jeremy Black makes: “Drayton is at pains to tell us that he is a professor and that, as Biggar is no historian, his views are of limited value. That might well be the case if we were speaking of Rankean-style source criticism, but that is not the case here (“Academics Should Look in the Mirror before Smearing Rivals,” The Article, 19 August 2019). 

9 Nigel Biggar, “Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History,” Standpoint (March 2016), pp. 40-1.

10 Ibid., p. 42.

11 Ibid., p. 44; Paul Maylam, The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an imperialist in Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 2005), p. 37.

12 Biggar, “Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History,” p. 42.

13 Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

14 Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 46n.141. I could just as easily have grounded the same point in Lawrence James’s account of Indian terrorism in 1906-7 in Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (London: Abacus, 1997), p. 426: “Often, as in the IRA today, the typical terrorist was a youth whose ambitions outstripped his capacities and education. Entering the secret brotherhood of the terrorists was an escape from the boredom and frustration of an unfulfilled life into a world full of excitement and risks, in which he enjoyed considerable power, even adulation…. Political terrorism … attracted plenty of failed university graduates and ill-taught pupils from indifferent schools who had drifted from job to job, succeeding in none.”

15 Nigel Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014), pp. 94n.49, 95n.51.

16 Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies, p. 288.

17 Ian McBride, “The Peter Hart Affair in Perspective: History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution,” The Historical Journal, 61/1 (2018), pp. 249, 269, 271.

18 Ibid., p. 253.

19 Ibid., p. 270.

20 Nigel Biggar, “Individual Rights versus Common Security? Christian Moral Reasoning about Torture,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 27/1 (2014), pp. 3, 20; “Imprudent Jurisprudence? Human Rights and Moral Contingency,” Journal of Law and Religion, 30/3 (October 2015), pp. 397-8, 401. 

21 Nigel Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014), pp. 7-8, 9; “Scottish Independence Seems Like a False God,” Church Times, 5 September 2014 (accessed 19 August 2019).

22 Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis, pp. 13-17, and Chapter 3.

23 See the online “Open Letter from Oxford Scholars” denouncing my “Ethics and Empire” project (19 December 2017), which was led by Dr James McDougall, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Oxford, and my responses in the Times on 23 December 2017 and in the Oxford Magazine in January 2018. For my documentation of the abusive and repressive conduct of Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literature at the University of Cambridge, see note 5 above. To these two examples, we can now add a third, Dr Kim Wagner, Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary’s University London. On 15 March 2019 Wagner responded to an intelligent and mildly critical review by Dr Zareer Masani, by tweeting this: “Zareer Masani is what happens when your senile grandad escapes from the old people’s home and gets mistaken for a historian. And then gets to write a book-review.” When Masani told him that he’d reported him to the police, Wagner issued an unqualified apology (19 March 2019), but has since refused to speak on the same platform.

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