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Stop self-flagellating, get on with educating


DO countries need to apologise for the sins of their past? Should the Italian government seek pardon for its imperial Roman legions bashing the Brits to bits? Has the time arrived for the Danes to offer compensation for despoiling our monasteries, killing a load of Anglo-Saxons and making off with the silver? And how about President Macron’s fulfilling his moral duty by seeking forgiveness for Norman ‘genocide’ in Yorkshire – the ‘harrying of the North’?

Self-flagellation, it seems, is back with a vengeance. It has become à la mode and, what is more, there is money to be made! Triggered, perhaps, by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign and similar movements, St John’s College, Oxford, is in the vanguard. It recently placed a job advert for someone to work on a research project called ‘St John’s and the Colonial Past’. Attracting a salary of £39,000, funded by the college, the job description states:

This project will explore connections between the college and colonialism, uncovering benefactions to St John’s and the alumni who served in the empire. It will also investigate the monuments, objects, pictures, buildings that evoke the colonial past.

This is self-flagellation writ large, with lots of virtue-signalling points to be earned in addition to the salary. St John’s appears to be seeking the equivalent of a 17th century witchfinder general. Expose the demonology of our past, seek out the white devils, reveal the necromancy that underpins today’s university education.

Providing ‘proof’ of how bad we were is a key part of the task facing the successful applicant. The underlying intention is to make amends for perceived sins of the college forefathers in particular and of the British Empire in general. Only through admission of shame and guilt can the sins be expiated.

The college has admitted as much in the face of benefactors threatening to withdraw their money in protest against a medieval-style ‘decolonisation’ hysteria sweeping through St John’s and through many ‘western’ universities around the world, especially in Britain and the United States. The Telegraph has seen a letter from Professor Maggie Snowling, the president of St John’s:

She does not . . . deny that the project may result in the removal of colonial links. ‘A minority of cases uncovered may seem more negative, but the research will give us a framework in which to tackle, she says. 

Yes, we are back to Perugia in central Italy in 1259, where an excess of self-mortification in response to harvest failure and famine kicked off the mania of a full-time flagellant movement that swept across Europe, including England. It received a boost when the Black Death turned up and a notion circulated that flagellation provided a remission of sin. Virtue signalling has always had its benefits! Eventually, in the mid-14th century, popes condemned the flagellants as heretical and, as a mass movement, it died out rapidly. Public burning of ‘offenders’ may have helped.

Eight hundred years on and here we go again. Ours is the new Age of Atonement! And there are deviant heretics to be sought out by a mob of flagellating academic narcissists, in love with what they mistakenly perceive as their own moral superiority to the rest of humanity. Heading their hit-list of hate figures at Oxford is Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of theology and non-flagellant.

Biggar has dared to suggest that the British Empire may not have been totally bad. He has argued the need to ‘pay careful attention to the historical variety of things that empire can be and work out a more sophisticated way of evaluating them morally’. In other words, we can stop beating ourselves us up over empire.

Tame stuff this may seem, but it provoked a vicious backlash amongst some self-punishing academics. A hundred and seventy scholars of empire from around the world, including the UK, USA, India and South Africa, signed a letter denouncing Biggar’s views.

Throughout history most people have been either conquerors or conquered. It is too often forgotten that Britain has been in both positions. Who now is aware, for example, that Britain was once ruled by an emperor, Septimius Severus, from the Roman province of Africa and that he died in York (Eboracum) before he could carry out his decision to exterminate the entire population north of Hadrian’s Wall?

It is true that monstrous acts were committed under the British Empire as they have been under most, if not all, empires. It is also surely true that most subjected people across the globe in the past would, surely, have chosen British rule to any alternative. For all of its faults, it was preferable to be ruled by the British Empire than by what was on offer elsewhere.

It right to be regretful of the blots on the record of Britain’s imperial rule but it is equally important to be proud that, on balance, the good outweighed the bad. More than 75 per cent of Jamaicans are descendants of slaves and yet, in 2011, nearly 50 years after independence, 60 per cent believed they would be better off as part of the British Empire. Only 17 per cent preferred independence.

The existence of the Commonwealth of Nations, comprising 53 member states, nearly all former British colonies, is testimony to their affinity for an empire that was probably the greatest and most remarkable achievement of any nation in human history.

Our self-flagellating academic elites need to stop apologising for the Empire. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee. The aroma beyond these shores, not least in the United States, is mostly of admiration and affection. We can, after all, be proud of our British identity, whatever our racial, religious, social or cultural background. The time has arrived to stop running ourselves down.

It is an American writer, Bill Bryson, who has best summed up the psychological condition of modern Britain. What he wrote in 1988 in Notes from a Small Island is even truer today than it was then.

What an enigma Britain will seem to historians . . . Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far seeing welfare state – in short, did nearly everything right – and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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