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‘Decolonization’ and the attack on the West

Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Why have attacks on the British Empire recently become so frequent? What cause is being served by caricaturing the past? Whose interests are being furthered?

‘Decentring’ the West in the history of world civilization is nothing new.  Two great Cambridge academics, Sir Joseph Needham and Sir Jack Goody, were doing it decades ago.  Both were men of the Left, and their aim was optimistic and generous, as well as intellectually coherent: to show that other civilizations (ancient China in Needham’s case) had helped to make the modern world, and hence to broaden our understanding and sympathies.  Today’s ‘decolonization’, though superficially similar, has opposite aims: to reduce and mutilate our culture, to sow division, and to narrow our sympathies.  Removing Shakespeare, Austen and Chaucer from curricula.  Teaching our history as unbroken violence and exploitation.  Dismissing ‘the Enlightenment’ as racist.  Demeaning Mozart and Beethoven as products of the age of slavery.  Labelling the contents of museums as ‘loot’, however acquired.  Asserting that science, mathematics and medicine—even cricket, gardening and golf!—are reflections of imperialist oppression.

Various explanations of this phenomenon have been suggested, including philosophical (the offspring of postmodernism) and political (the shift to ‘identity’ and victimhood).  But there is, I think, a historical cause too, and history asks the basic questions ‘why here?’ and ‘why now?’

‘Decolonization’ is a variant of anti-Westernism until recently confined to the political extremes.  But now it has been adopted by the cultural establishment, primarily in Anglophone countries.  It derives its form and language from a mutation of anti-colonial nationalism.  This is very different from the world view of the ‘founding fathers’ of anti-colonialism, few of whom were anti-Western (think of Nehru and Jinnah).  On the contrary they wanted to model their countries on the West, and take over the institutions created by imperial rulers.

What has changed?  One is the real or perceived ‘decline of the West’ (a recurring phenomenon, so far disproved by the West’s ability to adapt).  Since 1989, when Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the triumph of Western values and the ‘end of history’, the West has committed a series of disastrous errors.  Its economic and political ascendency is, or appears to be, waning.  Moreover, the apocalyptic pessimism of the Green movement—the political and psychological successor of Marxism—fundamentally undermines the whole story of economic, social and political Progress, and facilitates the ‘decolonization’ of science and even mathematics presented as forms of exploitation.  Attacking Western civilization would have seemed eccentric in 1989.  Now it seems to be the tide of history.

Yet in a way Fukuyama was right: there is no feasible alternative ideology or ‘decolonized’ technology if we seriously wish to limit climate change.  So anti-Westernism does not provide an alternative vision of the future, but a nihilistic and hysterical obsession with the past, especially 18th and 19th century imperialism.  One obvious reason is that this provides in Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand the equivalent for polemical purposes of the United States’s history of slavery and segregation.  We too can be found historically guilty, accused of having inherited the guilt of our forefathers.

‘Decolonization’ draws on extreme nationalist mythology in post-colonial states.  Most of them have not since independence equalled the achievements of Western liberal democracy, and certainly have not fulfilled the hopes of their founding fathers.  ‘Decolonization’ is the way of shifting the responsibility to empires — especially the British.  The Indian politician Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India is the textbook example.  Even slavery, racism, and the caste system can be blamed on colonization.  It cannot be admitted that some advantages were conferred by empires as that would leave post-colonial states responsible for their own failures.  Instead, they continue to claim victimhood and its benefits, including demands for various forms of reparation.

This means propagating a lurid caricature of the British Empire.  No one would suggest that it was faultless: no system of government is.  But it has become a common trope to characterize it as a uniquely ‘evil empire’ motivated solely by base motives and conferring no benefit whatever on its peoples—despite the fact that many of them were clearly content with their place in the empire, and in some cases requested to join it.  To take a random example, the novelist Bernadine Evaristo, in a broadcast entitled ‘Reflections on Majesty’ (which the BBC saw fit to repeat the weekend before the Queen’s funeral), called Britain “the greatest slave-trading nation the world has ever known, fattening its national coffers [by] an empire that caused untold suffering for generations, and depleted the resources of many nations.’  Do people making such statements really believe them, or are they simply indifferent to the truth?

The pace is often set within the Western cultural establishment by some nationals of former colonies, both academics and students, highly activist though not evidently representative.  It is hard to believe that most overseas students pay large sums to come to British universities with the intention of rejecting British culture, history and science.  Furthermore, in a country whose government includes senior figures born in or with family links in former colonies, it might seem that the ‘decolonizers’ are a fringe element.  Yet militant ‘decolonization’ offers its practitioners a road to notoriety and otherwise inexplicable academic preferment and even media stardom.  A perfect example is the widely publicized and embarrassingly coarse seminar series attacking Churchill organized in Churchill College Cambridge featuring Professor Priyamvada Gopal, Dr Onyeka Nubia, Dr Madhusree Mukerjee and Professor Kehinde Andrews.  Progressive-minded academics and others feel they cannot oppose or ignore such voices without being accused of racism.  University and museum administrators act like commercial corporations in protecting their marketing image.

The recent saga of the Benin Bronzes encapsulates the intellectual and ethical contradictions of ‘decolonization’.  Several British universities and museums (and some in Germany and France) have decided to return artworks seized in 1897 to the descendants of slave traders. This has provoked a protest from descendants of slaves in the United States, who state their moral right to be consulted and who wish the works to be kept in Western museums.  The original decision so far stands: otherwise, it would be tacitly admitting that empires could sometimes bring benefits—in this case, the ending of the slave trade, in which the British Empire was the main global force.  Which of course is the very opposite of the ‘decolonization’ dogma.

All this could be dismissed as virtue-signalling froth.  But it is part of something bigger and more serious.  The West—that variety of societies that try to practice Enlightenment values of individual liberty, rationalism, the rule of law, democracy—are vulnerable in ways they have not been since the 1930s and 40s.  The Ukraine invasion, the threat to Taiwan, the Iranian menace, and the energy crisis and its dangers to our economic foundations show that we have been masking our relative decline with wishful thinking—again, in a way not seen since the 1930s.  As Emmanuel Macron recently warned, the ‘age of abundance’ is over, and there is far more at stake than merely our fuel bills.  If we are able to face up to these dangers, both as a loose alliance of free nations and at home as a national community still based on solidarity and democracy, we must resist the undermining of our culture and history by people who seem to hate them, or who are at best ‘useful idiots’ serving anti-liberal forces.  A first step would be to improve the teaching of history, by schools and museums, so that young people are not left ignorant and easy prey to noisy and hostile propaganda.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).