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The Harry Potter publisher and the cancelled professor


YOU will not yet have read Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar CBE. For this, blame the ‘should-have-been’ publishers, Bloomsbury. To avoid the promotion of contentious material, it seems, they have decided against releasing the book, which they commissioned, and have paid off Biggar. The recently retired Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, who concluded in his book that the British Empire was not all bad, has described his ‘cancellation’ as capitulation to ‘the woke left’.

He has a point. According to a report in the Times, Bloomsbury, publishers of the Harry Potter series, were initially very enthusiastic, describing the work as being of ‘major importance’. Biggar’s editor informed him by email that he was ‘speechless’ with enthusiasm. Quite an accolade!

Things turned sour, however, when a follow-up email from Bloomsbury’s head of special interest informed Biggar that ‘conditions are not currently favourable to publication’. From there, matters went steadily downhill. In Bloomsbury’s opinion, ‘limbo’ was the best place for the book and, by implication, for its author.

In his Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri (c 1265-1321) describes the abode of Limbo as an alternative to Hell for those who are virtuous but unbaptised. In woke theology Biggar falls into that category. Confinement in Limbo, though, has some poetic merit. In Bloomsbury’s defence, it is a rather benign punishment for ‘heresy’. And Biggar would be in good company. Dante’s Limbo includes the Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and even the chivalrous Saladin.  

It seems that Biggar, however, has no desire to be so confined, saying: ‘If every publisher behaved like Bloomsbury did with me, then important books that challenge received ideas that may be deeply mistaken won’t get published. And fallacious ideas will dominate our public discourse, as indeed they have been for some time on our history.’

The good news is that another publisher, Collins, has come to the rescue. It will release the book tomorrow. We will then be able to judge for ourselves the extent of Biggar’s ‘heresy’. From the evidence of the Times’s ‘Book of the Week’review, woke witch-finders and inquisitional heresy-hunters will not be disappointed.

I suspect that Biggar’s book is unlikely, for example, unconditionally to condemn colonial interference, from time to time, in local culture. A good example of such interference is the prohibition the British Empire placed on the practice of sati or suttee in parts of India and Nepal. This involved the burning of a widow on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Faced by protests against the ban in Sindh province (modern-day Pakistan), the imperial British Governor Charles Napier met religious leaders. He conceded to their complaints about British interference in local culture. This was his response, quoted in Jeremy Paxman’s pre-woke book, Empire: ‘Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!’

Paxman was allowed to quote such British imperialist heresy in 2011 when his book was published by Penguin to accompany a BBC TV series. Would he get away with it today?

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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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