Professor Nigel Biggar answers questions from the ORB
(Originally published in ORB HT23)
ORB: Where is your favourite place to write?
Nigel Biggar: The distraction-free room in my flat in Swanage, Dorset whose window looks over the sea to the chalk Ballard Down. I’ve been walking up and over that down for fifty years and I love it.
ORB: If you could sit down for dinner with a writer from the past, who would it be and why?
Nigel Biggar: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the late 19th century socialist-imperialist Alfred Milner. He was a highly conscientious, principled, and thoughtful man, who chose to enter into the anxieties and frustrations of political life in order to improve the world. While capable of patience, he did not flinch from grasping nettles. And yet, in many respects, tragically, he failed. I admire him.
ORB: If you could go back and rewrite one of your books, which one would it be?
Nigel Biggar: I’d probably go back and tweak all of my books, since my thinking is usually developing. For example, I was not quite satisfied with the account I had given of the role of ‘rights’ in the ethics of war in my 2013 book, In Defence of War. So, I revisited the issue and refined my position in my 2020 book, What’s Wrong with Rights?
ORB: Which writer do you think everybody should be reading right now?
Nigel Biggar: The monk-turned-barrister-turned-novelist William Brodrick, who sometimes writes under the pseudonym ‘John Fairfax’. He treats his characters – not least the barrister-turned-monk Father Anselm – with extraordinary human sympathy and moral wisdom.
ORB: Are there any upcoming projects you're working on?
Nigel Biggar: For the foreseeable future I shall be fielding invitations to write and speak in the wake of the publication of my book on colonialism. That will keep me busy enough.
ORB: We were intrigued to learn about your position on Scottish independence in your Spectator interview with Matthew Parris. You said 'for some Scots independence is a kind of cathartic cleansing of Scotland from the evils of Britain, which equals empire, which equals wickedness'. You seem to imply it is as important to hold Scots as implicated in the project of empire as the English. Could you expand on this and relate it to your own Scottish heritage?
Nigel Biggar: The Scots were certainly deeply involved in the British Empire – in the 1820s every one of the three main city-ports ruled by the East India Company was governed by a Scot. (Note that I speak of their being ‘involved’ rather than ‘implicated’, since I do not regard imperial and colonial endeavour necessarily as a crime.)
My main point with regard to Scottish independence is that some nationalists, whom I have read, justify the separation of Scotland from the UK by equating Britain with empire, and empire with evil. Since I do not think that the British Empire was simply evil – indeed, I think it achieved a lot of good – I regard that ground of separatism as a false one. And since I regard the UK as a remarkable and precious multinational achievement, I wanted to explain why that separatist narrative is false. That was one of the original inspirations for writing Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
ORB: You have claimed that British people should feel ‘pride as well as shame about our imperial past‘. What role do you think emotions should play in public life? If we are to remain loyal to the ideal of history as a subject dealing in facts, if not truth, does it even matter who feels what towards the British empire?
Nigel Biggar: We identify ourselves with things we care about and admire. And to care and to admire is to feel. I care about Britain and I admire a lot of what our ancestors – English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish – achieved both here and throughout the world. As a consequence, I want to see the United Kingdom stay united, not least because the UK remains an important liberal power at a time when the liberal West is under threat from Russia and China. Clearly, then, I have a personal investment or interest in the UK.
It follows that I also have an interest in the UK’s historical record, since if that record were indeed simply a litany of imperial racism, exploitation, and excessive violence – as some evidently want us to think – there wouldn’t be much to admire or identify with. However, one can have a political interest and yet still acknowledge all the relevant facts, even inconvenient ones, and give an account of them that is fair and reasonable.
One can be interested and yet still permit one’s interest to be disciplined, tested, and corrected by facts and data. I have sought to do that as honestly as I can. No doubt I have made some mistakes and will want to make some adjustments later. But professional historians who have read my book have found it 'fair-minded' (Vernon Bogdanor, Oxford and KCL), 'exemplary in its fairness' (Krishan Kumar, University of Virginia), and 'scrupulously honest' (Tirthankar Roy, LSE).
ORB: What is one achievement of the 'Ethics and Empire' seminars that you are most proud of?
Nigel Biggar: May I mention several? Our success in surviving attempts to shut us down in December 2017 is one thing I am very pleased about. I am also pleased that, in spite of an official boycott by Oxford’s Centre for Global History, we have attracted over 40 historians from elsewhere in the UK, Europe, and North America to take part.
And I am pleased that we have discovered interesting facts such as that in ancient China and the medieval Islamic world empire as a political form – as distinct from the conduct of particular emperors – was completely unremarkable, morally speaking.
ORB: You have been vocal about your critics who you claim 'cancel, because they can’t answer'. Are there any critics of yours who you disagree with but respect their positions nonetheless? Critics who aren't 'cancelling' but attempting to 'answer'?
Nigel Biggar: A couple of years ago I wrote a review (unpublished) for the Times of the latest book by Priyamvada Gopal, who had initiated the attempt to 'shut down' the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project in December 2017, in which I gave her credit. In the endnotes of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning I comment on Kim Wagner and Sathnam Sanghera and in each case I give some credit. I recognise that I am morally obliged to try to be fair even to my enemies. That recognition has almost never been reciprocated.
ORB: What have you most enjoyed about retirement?
Nigel Biggar: Being free to concentrate on what I care about most. The job has ended; the work continues.
NIGEL BIGGAR CBE is a writer and theologian who was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford until September 2022. He has written extensively and controversially about the British Empire, running Oxford's 'Ethics and Empire' seminar for six years. His most recent book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, was published in February by William Collins.