I was certainly in the sixties, but I was never of them. Born in 1955, I grew up alongside the post-war emergence of pop culture, the rumble of resentment against Americans as they waxed and we waned, the flourishing of utopian flower-power, and the associated debunking of all the old certainties and heroes. While Blackadder didn’t dare to mock the Battle of Britain pilots, he was merciless in his caricature of their fathers.
Nevertheless, my Inner Edwardian refused to vacate my soul, and so I found the cultural changes swirling around me painful and unsettling, and I resisted swallowing the New Narrative whole. But observing that the tide was against me, I went into inner exile.
Growing old has its advantages. One is that we come to know our own mind more clearly; the other, that we cease to care so much what others think of it.
Growing old has its advantages. One is that we come to know our own mind more clearly; the other, that we cease to care so much what others think of it. It’s not that I am always sure of myself; it’s rather that I feel that I have a vocation and a duty to say it as I see it. If I’m proven wrong, then we’ll all learn through the proving. But if I’m right, then what I say needs to be heard. Either way, the truth wins out.
I first started making trouble in 2013, when I published a book called In Defence of War. My pacifist confrères were, of course, aghast. But even others baulked at my defence of military intervention without UN authorisation. One whispered to me that I was abusing my authority as an eminent professor; another, that I was just being “contrarian”. Somehow they couldn’t compute that I say what I do simply because I believe it. And rather than tackle the argument, they preferred to tackle my integrity.
The same thing happened the following year when I produced a book that argues – with oodles of qualification – in favour of the nation-state, a certain sort of patriotism, the Anglican establishment, and (even) the British empire. In response, a colleague of 30 years, who has never once taken the trouble to engage me in conversation on these matters, published a review in which he described my opinions as “glorying in their unfashionability”. No responsible, rational engagement. Not even charity.
Then came the First World War. Late in 2013 I had published an article in Standpoint, which argued that that Britain was right to go to war in 1914. Early in the New Year Michael Gove praised it in the Daily Mail, provoking the Cambridge historian Richard Evans to enter the lists in the New Statesman, where he dismissed what I’d written as “absurd”, declining to offer reasons while sneering at the “self-importance of his [ie, my] tribe”. Sneering at whole tribes is what we call “bigotry”. But in this case Evans was shrewd in lining up the victims of his prejudice. Had he chosen Jews, blacks or gays, it would have cost him his job. But because he targeted the class of Christian theologians, and because he is an eminent Man of the Left, it was fair game.
And then there was Rhodes. Because of my sympathy for the British empire, and because I’d been reading about the history of British involvement in South Africa for the past four summers, when the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement started to besiege Oriel College in the autumn of 2015, I felt moved to act, first of all in print and then in a debate at the Oxford Union.
Sneering at whole tribes is what we call “bigotry”. Had he chosen Jews, blacks or gays, it would have cost him his job. But because he targeted the class of Christian theologians, and because he is an eminent Man of the Left, it was fair game.
About that debate two things are remarkable. First was the opening sally of one of my opponents, Richard Drayton. Drayton argued that, if he were to presume to offer his opinions on the theology of the eucharist, he, as an historian of Africa, wouldn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Therefore, nor should mine on Rhodes, I being a mere theologian. Had there been time to respond, I’d have said that, had an Africanist shared his views on the eucharist, I’d have treated them on their merits, and that it was disappointing that he wouldn’t extend the same justice to me.
Then there was the intimidation. The RMF group in Oxford was little more than 2,000 strong. On the generous assumption that they were all Oxford University students, that amounts to about 10 per cent of the student body. They were a small minority, but an intimidating one. During the debate, every statement by an RMF proponent met promptly with a storm of cheers and applause. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d have thought the audience overwhelmingly supportive. But at one moment I decided to look rather than listen, and observed that, during the thunderous applause, most of those present were actually sitting on their hands.
But the most shocking revelation of the whole controversy was that the RMF activists had no interest in the truth. I laid out my views in the London Times in December 2015, in the Oxford Union debate in January 2016, and in Standpoint that March. Those views included a demonstration that the quotation usually cited as proof of Rhodes’ genocidal racism is a mixture of fiction, distortion, and fabrication. No one at all has challenged my account, either then or since. The truth about the past, and the duty to do justice to it, is of no interest. History, it seems, is merely an armoury from which to ransack politically expedient weapons.
The fact that academics are unusually clever doesn’t make them unusually honest, just, or charitable.
So what are the morals of my story? One, that academics – despite their self-perception – are no more morally virtuous than any other class of people. The fact that academics are unusually clever doesn’t make them unusually honest, just, or charitable.
The second moral is more hopeful. The zealous certainty of a minority can tie the tongues of an uncertain majority. But when someone dares to stand up and out, others begin to find their voices, reassured that what they think can be said in public without risking social death. For, despite appearances, they are not alone in thinking it.