A review reckoning: reflections on the British empire

17 April 2023. The Irish Times.

Sir – In his review (March 31st), Marc Mulholland caricatures my book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, when he reports that I “tell those aggrieved by imperial land-grabbing, discrimination and repression to stiffen the lip, look on the bright side, stop feeling sorry for themselves, and realise that was all for the greater good”. Not so. I compile a long list of injustices that the British empire contained. I argue that we cannot sensibly make a utilitarian calculation “weighing up” injustices and benefits, to decide that the empire did more bad or good. We can consider whether it was “essentially” racist, exploitative, and murderously violent, but I conclude it wasn’t. Moreover, it did nurture growing humanitarian and liberal elements, which found climactic expression when, between May 1940 and June 1941, the empire offered (with Greece) the only military opposition to the murderous racist regime in Hitler’s Berlin.

Mulholland writes that I present “a simple dichotomy: between orderly if necessarily tough government on the one hand, horrible ‘anarchy’ on the other.” Again, not so. As a Burkean conservative, I am sceptical of Frantz Fanon’s (and Pádraig Pearse’s) fantasy of the cathartic properties of revolutionary violence. And, since anarchy tends toward the tyranny of warlords, I think that tolerating some state injustice is often wise. No opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s agents used to squeeze the heads of political prisoners in a metal vice until their brains seeped through their noses, can think otherwise. Nevertheless, I admit that violent rebellion may sometimes be morally justified-say, of the Ndebele against the capricious rule of the British South Africa Company in 1896.

Mulholland claims I go “to great lengths to defend … colonialists from the stigma of racism”. Again, unfair. The imperial British displayed a variety of attitudes towards the peoples they ruled. In the late 19th century, the Darwinist view that some races are biologically inferior vied with, but never supplanted, the Christian conviction that all races are equal in developmental potential.

On ethics, Mulholland tells us that “historians are wary of ‘moral reckonings’” – aptly so since they lack professional competence to make them. But then he describes colonialists’ motives in moral terms as sadistic, avaricious, rapacious, and “always [characterised by] a large dose of bad faith” (Always?). Further, he urges it would be “wrong” to expect those accustomed to celebrate anti-colonial struggle “to swallow a moral orientation that conflicts with their values of freedom and dignity”. But he doesn’t accord the same immunity from criticism to those wont to celebrate the humanitarian and liberal endeavours of the British empire.

Finally, he finds it “tasteless” to ask whether the Bengal famine of 1943-44 under British rule was a “necessary sacrifice” for the fight against fascism. As an academic he can indulge his feelings. But those burdened with political responsibility, like Churchill, had to ask such questions – and answer them. – Yours, etc.


Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology,

University of Oxford.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: