The countries that comprise the “Anglosphere” (the USA and the old White Commonwealth) have been buffeted in recent years by a windy assault upon their historical origins by liberal-left agitators. At first they concentrated their outrage on the founding of Australia and the fate of the Aborigines, New Zealand and the Maoris, South Africa and the blacks, Canada and the Indians and, not least, the United States (black slaves and Indians). It was only a matter of time before they directed their glare towards the mother country, the United Kingdom. The latter had, of course, committed the original sin of founding these colonies from the seventeenth century onwards.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States in 2020, the rag-tag and bobtail of the British liberal-left had its very own “MeToo” moment and sought to show solidarity with its American brothers. We witnessed the ritual “bending of the knee” by no less a personage than the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer; the daubing of the plinth upon which stood the great British wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, in Parliament Square with the obligatory curse of our times, “racist”, by the middle-class son of a Church of England vicar, and the toppling into Bristol Harbour by the local would-be Jacobins of the statue of Sir Edward Colston, who had made his fortune as a director of the Royal African Company, which engaged in the slave trade, and then spent it by way of benefaction to his city of origin.
Screams of impotent outrage were again heard from University of Oxford undergraduates and some faculty members that “Rhodes must fall” from his statued perch above the main gateway to his former college, Oriel. Of course, Cecil Rhodes, the colossus who used his gold and diamond wealth to found modern South Africa, has long been a bête noire of the liberal-left since he embodied all that they hate, namely capitalist imperialism. Their torment has been prolonged by the fact that Lenin’s century-old prediction that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism has still not come to pass. Likewise, Rhodes has not fallen because Oriel College and the University of Oxford are dependent upon the millions given them by the Rhodes Trust to finance the education of American and Commonwealth scholars. Instead, they have attempted to salve their delicate consciences and appease their agitated students by adding the name of the modern secular saint, Nelson Mandela, to the name of the trust.
Not to be outdone, the dreadlocked master (or should it be mistress?) of Jesus College, Cambridge, Sonita Alleyn (the former CEO of Somethin’ Else, a cross-platform media company), sought to remove from the chapel a memorial plaque designed by Grinling Gibbons to Tobias Rustat, a former fellow and benefactor who was accused of having profited from the slave trade. Apparently, he was ruining the daily devotions of the denizens of the college. Their hysterical bubble was pricked by the revelation that he had had not profited from slavery. The Consistory Court of the Diocese of Ely, in which benefice the chapel lies, had no compunction, therefore, in refusing to have the offending article removed. As the Church Times headline put it: “Jesus Christ forgave Tobias Rustat, judge argues, so should Jesus College”.
Instead, Alleyn and her allies had to seek a virtuous solace in their return of the brass sculpture of a cockerel, known as Okukor, to the Nigerian high commissioner in London, and later the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II in Benin City, by way of reparation for the college’s involvement with colonialism. The cockerel had been donated by the father of a former member of the college who had seized it during a military expedition to Benin City in West Africa in 1897. It is a plaque depicting the history of the Royal Court of Benin, and cast from brass acquired through the sale of slaves. No notice was taken of this inconvenient fact by Jesus College’s “Slavery Working Party”, nor was mention made that this small war had stemmed from a massacre of a peaceful mission of white Britons and that the Benin king was a great believer in slavery and human sacrifice. A Royal Navy surgeon described how he “passed several human sacrifices … lying about. As we neared the city, sacrificed human beings were lying in the path and bush—even in the king’s compound the sight and stench of them was awful. Dead and mutilated bodies were everywhere—by God! May I never see such sights again.”
In its virtue-signalling gesture, Jesus College seems to have overlooked this blot on the Nigerian landscape of the past. It is also relaxed in its attitude towards repressive regimes. For it had no qualms about taking £3.7 million from a former prime minister of Communist China to fund its research centre on the country. Moreover, the director, Professor Peter Nolan, was very reluctant to hold seminars on the crack-down on democratic protests in Hong Kong and the imprisonment, torture, rape and medical experimentation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He regarded it as “unhelpful” and that “it would be very difficult to contain … sentiment”.
The fate of the Benin bronzes seems to have sparked a mass guilt trip by universities and museums in the UK, Europe and the United States. The University of Aberdeen, the Horniman Museum in South London, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and various German museums have competed with each other in the restitution stakes to see how quickly they can return them to Nigeria. Even the Church of England seeks redemption by returning two bronzes which were given to the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, in the 1980s, long after the decline and fall of the British Empire.
Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, felt the need to write a book on the subject, The Brutish Museums: Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (2020). It was hailed by the New York Times as one of the best arts books of the year, and described as “masterful” by the LA Review of Books and “a beautifully written, carefully argued book” by the Guardian. One reviewer, however, begged to differ. Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, thought the book was “an object lesson in how political zeal can abuse data in the cause of manufacturing an expedient narrative. In that respect, it is also typical of the ‘decolonising’ movement. And since the author occupies a professorial position at the University of Oxford, it may also be a symptom of something rotten in the heart of academe.” One gets a clear idea of the political stand of Hicks, as a member of the Labour Party, from his election tweet on December 13, 2019: “F*** the Tories”. Hicks is happy to pass over the real nature of the Kingdom of Benin but he regards the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, not least in Nigeria, as “a human rightist justification” for “unprovoked regime change”. Biggar advises that “whatever museum directors decide to do with objects acquired during the colonial period, they should not base it on the history told in this book. It cannot be trusted. The British were not so brutish in Benin.” It is also worth noting that in August 2022 the Afro-American Restitution Study Group requested that the UK’s Charity Commission prevent any repatriation of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria on the grounds that the country had profited from the slave trade in selling slaves for shipment across the Atlantic. They advocate a joint ownership of the bronzes in Western museums with the descendants of African slaves.
The German director of the British Museum (the first non-British head of the museum since 1866), Hartwig Fischer from Dresden, has stated on his blog that he is “aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere”. But he does not feel able to accede to the wish for the Benin bronzes and other artefacts to be returned permanently to Africa. Apparently, the British Museum plans to loan the bronzes to Nigeria. However, he is readily prepared to make a scapegoat of the long-dead Sir Hans Sloane, the philanthropist and effective founder of the British Museum. The latter’s bust has been removed from the Enlightenment gallery to a cabinet which explains that Sloane’s collection was built on “European colonialism”. This is to be part of the museum’s new mission to give a central prominence to its collections on colonialism and slavery. Fischer portentously announced that Sloane had been “pushed off his pedestal. We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge.” Sloane’s offence seems to have been his marriage to the wealthy daughter of a Jamaican planter. Under the new direction of Fischer, the museum was now to emphasise Sloane’s indirect connection with slavery rather than his donating his collection of 71,000 artefacts to enable the formation of the British Museum. Fischer positively vibrated with earnestness about the museum’s new self-imposed mandate: “Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated and, at times, very painful history.” One awaits his plans for the rededication of the museum’s collections of artefacts from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires, with all due emphasis being given to their characteristic conquest and slavery.
Although the British Museum is legally obliged to retain the objects in its collections for the British public, this has not stopped pressure groups, such as Tahir Shah’s Scheherazade Foundation, from urging that use be made of its discretionary powers to repatriate artefacts acquired during the heyday of the British Empire on the basis that they are “unfit” for the museum’s collection. Thus, Shah has requested that eleven sacred tablets or tabots be returned to Ethiopia and its Coptic Church. These were taken by British and Indian soldiers during the storming of the Magdala fortress to rescue British hostages from the clutches of the mad and slave-owning Emperor Theodore in 1868. In order to publicise his own campaign, Tahir Shah has employed the services of the actors Stephen Fry and Rupert Everett, as well as assorted peers from the House of Lords. It is worth noting that Tahir Shah, whose father was the writer Idries Shah, grew up in a large house in Kent which was owned by the family of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and the embodiment of the spirit of empire. Tahir cites as an influence on his own life that of Doris Lessing, the fellow traveller from Rhodesia, on whose activities MI5 kept a close watch during the Cold War. It does not seem to have occurred to Tahir and his friends that the tabots might continue to reside more safely in the UK than in Ethiopia. The latter country has been subject to many destructive wars over the past century and a half, the latest involving its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, against Tigray’s independence movement which at one point surged to the outskirts of Addis Ababa and threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa.
That grandstanding KC, the Australian-born Geoffrey Robertson, has joined in the anti-colonialist fray in yet another book. Never knowingly given to understatement, he thunders that “the trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receiver of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display”. He has called for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Hoa Hakananai’a to Easter Island and the Benin bronzes to Nigeria. He has called for the British Museum and other “encyclopedic museums”, such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York City “to return the precious legacy of other lands, stolen from their people by wars of aggression, theft and duplicity”. He thinks this is “a time for humility—something the British, still yearning for the era when they ruled the world, i.e. for Brexit, do not do well”. Robertson’s wish could well come true this autumn, as under the Charities Act 2022, overturning the 1983 National Heritage Act, national museums will be able to dispose of objects if there is a compelling “moral” reason to do so. And this is occurring under a Conservative government in the UK! Robertson’s lobbying also illustrates a theme which emerges again and again in the left-liberal Remainer criticism of Brexit, that it is a throwback to empire, and therefore the two must be castigated together. It is an anathema to them that Britain should become a strong global power again after leaving the EU. This goes against the grain of the declinist and ahistorical argument that Britain must accept its internationalist fate as a multicultural welfare state in the orbit of Europe.
It is noticeable that the contagion of unreason has been institutionalised in the UK. After some members of her staff at the British Library called for a racial “state of emergency” in 2020, the Chief Librarian, Liz Jolly (formerly head of library services at Teesside University), solemnly declared that “racism is the creation of white people” and that an “anti-racism action plan” was required to de-colonise the library. This meant re-labelling or moving those artefacts, busts of founders, such as Sir Hans Sloane, and even a portrait of Mr Punch, to which the “Decolonising Working Group” of the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) network took exception. However, Ms Jolly seems to have discouraged calls by her activist members of staff to encourage their colleagues to make monetary contributions to BLM and the black Labour MP Diane Abbott, the former girlfriend of Jeremy Corbyn, the previous leader of the Labour Party. The library’s Twitter feed was ablaze with contradictory expressions of sympathy and outrage at the goings-on at St Pancras, next door to the Eurostar terminal in London. One commentator opined of Ms Jolly that: “Anyone with this level of defective knowledge of world history has no place as chief librarian of any library, let alone an institution of this standing.”
Undeterred, Ms Jolly encouraged Anasuya Sengupta, the co-director and co-founder of “Whose Knowledge”, to give her thoughts on how to de-colonise the British Library in “3 (un)easy steps”. The trail for her talk outlined how she planned to explore “the notions of epistemic injustice and how different structures of power and privilege impact the ways we understand (digital) knowledge and scholarship”. She offered “some practices of de-colonisation that might move us from metaphor to the ongoing (and never complete) transformation of our organisations and ourselves”. The talk itself was more explicit about the three-step approach the library should take: “It’s not your knowledge: Centre, not ‘control’. It’s not your artifact: Respect (repair/repatriate?), not ‘own’. You’re not the leader: Serve, not ‘save’.” She was clear that: “Those who caused the problem cannot imagine or lead the solution. They can (and must) support it.” The way ahead for the British Library is clear then: that BAME members of staff should take the lead on the de-colonisation of the library and that the white staff should just implement it.
The desire of the custodians of the UK’s heritage to rid themselves of the inconvenient artefacts of British history, especially from the age of empire, has been accompanied by a more sinister campaign to dictate how the British people should think about their past. This is being done in a number of underhand ways under the mantra of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DE&I), as embodied in the 2010 Equality Act, the dying gesture of the last Labour government. Under this act employers in the UK are legally allowed to discriminate in favour of a job candidate on the basis of their race or gender where the candidates were otherwise equally qualified. This has been interpreted by the left-liberal Establishment, which now controls the arts, the universities and the civil service, to allow them carte blanche to change the face of Britain through effective discrimination against white males in favour of ethnic minorities and women. No opposition to this new culture of employment is suffered by the new commissars of DE&I. In an Orwellian twist, the new faith dictates uniformity, inequality and exclusion. Civil servants and corporate employees have been obliged to attend courses in which they are forced to confess their “white guilt” about themselves and Britain’s imperial past or their “unconscious bias” against those of different ethnicity, gender or sexual persuasion. The civil servants at the head of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as well as the Ministry of Defence and the chiefs of the armed services, have been especially fierce in promoting the new rainbow orthodoxy.
Even such previously sedate organisations as the National Trust, which traditionally has looked after the historic houses of Britain, has been seized by this new mania. Under the direction of its new trustees, some of whom come from a museum background, emphasis has been given to redesignating the “space” in some of these houses to emphasise the previous owners’ connection with slavery and empire. In effect, the Trust has turned its back on its houses and their former inhabitants in favour of its gardens and woods, in accordance with what amounts to the new received religion of environmentalism and climate change. In the process it has lost much of its voluntary workforce upon which it relies to keep its houses and gardens open to the public.
Another alarming development in the new age of DE&I has been the suppression of free speech on matters historical. One has only to look back at the persecution of Professor Nigel Biggar by his colleagues at the University of Oxford, for daring to run a research project on “Ethics and Empire” and the boycotting for a slip of the tongue of the eminent Tudor historian, Dr David Starkey, by the academic and publishing world, to understand what happens to those bold souls who offend against the canon of the “Great Awokening”. Fortunately, for them and free-thinkers elsewhere, Biggar and Starkey are sufficiently robust to fight back. But what of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of popular and academic historians who seek to publish their work? A climate of fear has taken hold of the historical profession, especially among its younger cohorts. They are concerned that they will not be published or promoted and may even lose their jobs if they do not make ritual obeisance to the new order of things, especially on the subject of the British Empire.
There has been a growing trend, on both sides of the Atlantic, towards ill-informed commentary on empire in the public prints by academics. One can only marvel in disbelief at the tragic-comic, and factually inaccurate, traducing of Churchill’s reputation by an ill-assorted band of malcontents (none of whom qualify as professional historians) at a conference in 2021 (one of a series) held in the precincts of the very Cambridge college which has been named after him. And what are we to make of the curious utterances of Sir Richard Evans, the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, a historian of Nazi Germany? In an article in the New Statesman, the house journal of the Left, Evans, the official biographer of the unrepentant communist Eric Hobsbawm, quoted with approval the laments from the New York Times and the Guardian that “the vote for Brexit showed that Britain was determined to ‘cling to imperial nostalgia’ and ‘delusions of empire’”. Yet in another article in the New Statesman, Evans admitted that only 39 per cent of Leave voters told a survey that “they would like Britain to still have an empire, compared to 16 per cent of Remainers”. Could it rather be the case that the bulk of both Leavers and Remainers were influenced by another consideration, namely simply a desire to either get out or stay in the European Union, an empire in all but name? The liberal-left seems to be obsessed with making a link between Brexit and the British Empire, which passed away about the time of Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973. During the almost universal mourning around the world for her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, certain academics struck a sour note in their rush to judgment on her reign. Professor Maya Jasanoff of Harvard University, apparently an expert on the British Empire, alleged in the New York Times on September 8 that the Queen, “as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such the Queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.” Yet Jasanoff admits that the British government has agreed to pay out compensation to Kenyans and Cypriots who were interned during the so-called “emergencies” in these crown colonies in the 1950s. (She also seems to think India was a crown colony when it was an empire in its own right from 1858 to independence.) Jasanoff also fails to mention that the Queen made a successful first state visit to Ireland in 2011 which was much appreciated and welcomed by the Irish government. Even Sinn Fein sent two representatives to her funeral. Instead Jasanoff felt the need to get in a vicious dig at the “karmic turn” when the Irish Republican Army assassinated the Queen’s relative Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979. Jasanoff bemoans that: “We may never learn what the Queen did not or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name” because her “weekly meetings” (actually audiences) with her prime ministers remain a “black box” at the centre of the British state and supposedly incriminating documents were either destroyed by colonial officials or “deliberately concealed in a secret archive” (a reference to the material at the FCDO declassification centre at Hanslope Park which was released in 2011). There is no mention here by Jasanoff of the Queen’s constitutional right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her prime ministers and, as such, to have received copies of cabinet and other government documents in her regular despatch boxes; documents which can usually be found, after thirty years, in the National Archives at Kew in London. All this is preparatory to a general attack on “the toxic politics” of Brexit and “a vision of ‘Global Britain’ steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia”. Jasanoff, an American, calls for the end of the “imperial monarchy” and for King Charles III to re-model it on Scandinavian lines. She may be pushing at an open door, since the King is known to favour a slimmed-down monarchy and green and multicultural endeavours. Yet he is also well-placed to capitalise on the goodwill felt for the monarchy in many Commonwealth countries, some of whom, such as Mozambique, have no historical links with Britain, even if some members decide to opt for republican status. As the former diplomat Sir Ivor Roberts has remarked: “Britain in the course of her [the late Queen’s] reign as a country has morphed from an imperial power to one where tolerance is still a prime virtue, where many of the senior offices of state are now held by politicians from an ethnic minority background, where there have been three women prime ministers [all, it might be said, from the Conservative Party, not the Labour] and where leadership has been exercised in climate change politics and in resisting and combatting naked aggression by one state or against another, most recently of course Russia’s against Ukraine.”
However, the interest in this opinion piece by Jasanoff lies elsewhere. How does one account for the factual errors, omissions and calumnies which litter the article? Jasanoff is the Coolidge Professor at Harvard, specialising in the history of Britain and the British Empire. Yet none of her books are on decolonisation, on which she feels a right to pronounce a severe judgment. Her works have received lucrative prizes and plaudits from the critics, including Richard Gott (a former friend of the KGB) in the Guardian, and have been featured by the BBC in their cultural programs. In 2021 she was the chair of the Booker Prize jury, which included the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Clearly, she is now a much-valued member of the transatlantic liberal-left elite who claim the right, in Jasanoff’s case through sneeringly ill-informed invective, to determine not only our common view of Britain’s past but its present and future.
Some historians are fighting back against this deluded attempt by the liberal-left, which has effectively captured the Establishment, to enshrine this new, official history and memory, based on a hatred and sweeping away of the country’s past, in the pantheon of the new Britain. The distinguished professors David Abulafia, Nigel Biggar, Jeremy Black, Tim Blanning, Vernon Bogdanor, Jonathan Clark, Niall Fergusson, Bruce Gilley, and the indefatigable Robert Tombs, and others, at History Reclaimed (https://historyreclaimed.co.uk), have devoted themselves to highlighting examples of bias and distortion of the past in recent historical writings, especially on the British Empire. But will it be enough to correct, let alone, reverse the progressive closing of the mind of the British Establishment about the country’s past? Most of the members of History Reclaimed are middle-aged or retired, though there are younger voices, such as that of Marie Kawthar at Oriel College, Oxford, and Zewditu Gebreyohanes, the executive editor of History Reclaimed (and director of Restore Trust, a trustee of the V&A Museum and the former head of History Matters at Policy Exchange). They may come to help lead the fight for the recovery of reason in the writing of history, the preservation from left-liberal plunder of the incomparable collection of artefacts in British museums and the protection of memory, embodied in statues, in the UK.
For these academics, and some others in the Commonwealth, the history of Britain overseas is not one long, dismal catalogue of repression, exploitation and even genocide. As the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated at the recent Conversative Party conference, her parents were from Kenya and Mauritius and they extolled the virtues of British rule which brought the rule of law and built the foundations of the modern state in Africa. She fears that Britain is forgetting its core values and culture. “The unexamined drive towards multiculturalism as an end in itself combined with the corrosive aspects of identity politics has led us astray.” By allowing this liberal-left political crusade to warp their judgment as historians, too many in British universities are following the iniquitous example of their American peers and betraying their profession and what should be their practice of a balanced investigation of the past. As Nigel Biggar sombrely observed, there is “something rotten in the heart of academe”.
Dr Saul Kelly is Reader in International History at King’s College, London.
 The Church Times, 23 March 2022.
 Quoted by Elspeth Huxley in Four Guineas (1954).
 Juliet Samuel, The Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2022.
 The New York Times, 26 November 2020; Erin Thompson, “The Museum as Weapon”, 09/23/2020; C.L. Riley, The Guardian 6 November 2020.
 Nigel Biggar, “White and Wrongs”, The Critic Magazine, 18 March 2021.
 Dan Hicks on Twitter. “Fuck the Tories”, 13 December 2019.
 Biggar, ibid.
 The Guardian, 25 August 2020
 G. Robertson, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the case for Returning Plundered Treasure (Biteback,2019).
 The New Statesman, 1 June 2022.
 Ibid., 17 June 2020.
 The Daily Telegraph, 20 September 2022.
 The Daily Telegraph, 5 October 2022.