Sarah Ingham: Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

23 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

Never mind Rhodes Must Fall, a goodly percentage of the statues, murals and installations in the country’s public spaces should be consigned to the scrapheap.

As well as being a battleground in the nation’s intensifying culture war, the debate on public art went back to basics a few weeks ago, thanks to the unveiling of the Diana memorial statue. Suddenly we were also judging a piece on its aesthetics; how it looks – rather than how we look as we pronounce judgement.

Sadly, the public was none-too-impressed by the pewter Princess. Drawing comparisons with a traditional religious Madonna, The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston elevated the debate. Her piece was however headlined “Laura Ashley monument is little better than the usual tat“.

In the hysterical rush to the barricades to defend or attack representations of Britain’s long-dead and usually long-forgotten worthies, few have paused to look – really look – at the works in question. Rhodes should fall – or at least be turned to face the wall of Oxford’s Oriel College – not least because it is a pretty dire representation of such a key player in 19th century colonial history.

There is a certain irony that the Croesus-rich racist white supremacist looks vaguely Asiatic and that his baggy suit is more Albert Steptoe than Savile Row. If the sculptor had been more skilled, gravy stains and dandruff could probably be discerned. This rendering of Rhodes is less The Three Graces than utterly graceless.

Why are Tory Councillors in Essex Censoring Artwork?” demanded The Guardian on Monday. The work in question – a small hexagonal-shaped rose garden framed by three ordinary benches – can be found in a park in Shoeburyness and is part of the Estuary Festival. An English Garden created by Gabriella Hirst is apparently a commentary on Britain’s 1950s nuclear weapons industry. This seems more than a bit of a stretch, even when we learn the roses are a breed called Atom Bomb.

It’s not this drearily anodyne artwork to which some are objecting but the wording on the accompanying plaque. But having to read a work rather than be moved by it is usually a signal to expect bad art and worse prose. It’s always contextualisation, never explanation.

Instead of asking why councillors are censoring artwork, we should be asking why they are not. Indeed, too often they are cheerleaders-in-chief for incongruous cultural blots on our landscapes and ugly blight in our town centres.

A tour of public art in Surrey is to realise that the closest most works get to great is the vaguely Matisse-blue of Bisley’s  quirky Millennium clock tower which seems inspired by a cross between a dovecote and Big Ben. Woking is littered with creepy, garishly-painted oversized figures. Sean Henry’s seven-feet-tall Walking Women is the latest in the series of “much-loved sculptures” declares #WeAreWoking.

If the aim is really “to create new, stimulating and high-quality environments that revitalise public spaces and recognise the importance of culture”, it has failed. The sculptures bring to mind a Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps written about by HG Wells. He is commemorated by the War of the Worlds Martian Tripod, a piece in chrome which is as breathtakingly bad as the giant cockerel with which a former council leader lumbered a Dorking roundabout. Staines offers us the Swan Arches which bring to mind Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad.

Surrey is far from the only sorry place where recent installations of art in the public realm are not fit to be placed near local war memorials. Thankfully, there is beauty in their very simplicity. They have stood the test of time and are a rebuke to “much-loved sculptures” and other pieces of junk foisted upon us.

Art is subjective. One woman’s Venus de Milo is another’s Aphrodite at the Waterhole created by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. Public art, however, raises questions that are too rarely asked. Who decides? Who decides who decides? Who’s paying? Over the last decade matters have been further complicated by the Community Infrastructure Levy, the charge levied on developers, often in addition to the existing Section 106 obligations. Has this caused an upsurge in “art” for art’s sake?

In a bid to curb the nuisance of noisy supercars racing through the streets of the Royal Borough, Kensington and Chelsea Council is seeking to extend its “acoustic camera” scheme funded by the CIL. Judging by the crowds drawn to Sloane Street where wannabe-Hamiltons regularly show off their wheels, the dozens of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens are perceived to be far more beautiful than any works of numerous works of art in the area, including the majestic Wellington Arch Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner. The cameras are a far more resident-friendly way to spend CIL than frittering it away on ugly installations.

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth has recently been home to a giant blob of cream topped by a red cherry, a black fly (echoes of Damien Hirst 25+years ago) and a drone. The work of Heather Phillipson, it was called THE END.

If only.

Daniel Hannan: Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus?

23 Jun

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus? It’s a serious question. Consider, to pluck an example more or less at random, the decision this month by the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College, Oxford to remove a portrait of the Queen for the sake of “making people feel welcome”.

The monarchy is meant to be a unifying symbol, not only for British people of all ethnic backgrounds, but for 2.5 billion Commonwealth citizens. If we must allow the possibility that someone somewhere might none the less feel uncomfortable as they pass a portrait of Elizabeth II, should we not also consider the rather greater possibility that Right-of-Centre students might feel uncomfortable in a college that routinely makes decisions of this kind?

Conservatives tend not to crave victim status. When we walk past, say, a poster of Che Guevara, we might grumble at the moral emptiness of the numbskull who put it up; but we don’t, as a rule, go to the authorities and claim to have been wounded by the experience.

Still, the fact that we don’t whinge doesn’t mean that there is no issue. There is real concern among some Centre-Right students that their opinions will result in their being penalised academically.

Left-wing lecturers are not a new phenomenon; but their increasing intolerance is. A growing number of undergraduates feel obliged to spout woke pieties in their coursework for fear of being marked down. A brilliant young Cambridge historian told me recently that his first application had been rejected because he failed to mention slavery at his interview. “It was my fault, really, for not researching the politics of the don before I met her,” he added, apologetically. “The trouble is, I’m mainly a mediaevalist.”

That sort of thing didn’t really happen in my day. I had some spectacularly Left-wing dons, but they were, in the fullest sense of the word, liberals – broad-minded, interested in other points of view, comfortable with debate. That, though, was before the Great Awokening – the defining characteristic of which is not that it made universities more Left-wing, but that it made them readier to punish dissidents and heretics. Academics, in this sense at least, are behaving more like student radicals.

Consider, to pluck another recent example, the boycott of Oriel College, Oxford by 150 dons in protest at its refusal to bow to the mob and pull down the statuette of Cecil Rhodes which stands in a niche in the building his bequest paid for.

L’affaire Rhodes merits a column on its own. The diamond magnate who stalks the imaginations of BLM protesters is a cartoon baddy, a one-dimensional colonialist. The real human being was more complicated. For example, the flesh-and-blood Rhodes opposed the disfranchisement of black men in Cape Colony, funded the newspaper of what became the ANC and, when establishing his famous scholarships, laid down that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race” (a fifth of Rhodes scholars currently come from Africa).

He is not the most obvious candidate for cancellation – perhaps not even the most obvious candidate on his building, which also features a statue of a mediaeval clergyman who enthusiastically burned Lollards and of another who was on Spain’s side during the Armada.

Oriel listened politely to its critics, then established a commission to consider the future of the Rhodes statue. Although most of the members were committed decolonisers, their recommendations were surprisingly muted.

Essentially, they concluded that, yes, it might be nice to remove the statue but that, given the planning difficulties, there were other ways for Oriel to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice. The college duly announced that it would not waste a great deal of money on a lengthy application that would almost certainly be turned down; and so, appropriately enough, an imported American row was ended by British planning regulations.

It was this decision that sparked the “statement of a boycott of Oriel College” by various academics, determined to broadcast their purity by telling the world that they would not teach Oriel undergraduates. Most commentators fulminated against their lack of professionalism. One MP talked of “blackmail”. Almost everyone agreed that they were wrong to take out their politics on students.

But, thinking about it, I come to a different conclusion. School leavers who are not on the hard Left can now apply confidently to at least one college where they are unlikely to be harassed by the kind of don who sees conservatism as a mental illness.

Look at it from the point of view of a bright and unwoke sixth-former. Not necessarily a Scrutonian Rightist, just someone who feels that we have taken identity politics too far, and who worries that that view might provoke a negative reaction from tutors. The 150 silliest dons, those likeliest to resent divergent opinions, have conveniently given notice that at least one college will be spared their grievance-mongering.

Why not lean into the row? Why not advertise Oriel as an unwoke oasis? Why not appeal, on niche marketing grounds if nothing else, to students who don’t take the BLM line – not least the many conservative-leaning non-white students who are invisible to the broadcast media, but whom we all know in real life?

Full disclosure: Oriel was my old college as well as Rhodes’s. It used to have a certain reputation for social conservatism, heartiness and (not to put too fine a point on it) philistinism. Back then, different colleges had different personalities. Wadham, for example, was always a far-Left outlier.

But whereas Wadham remains as cheerfully extreme as ever, it has become almost unthinkable for any college to distinguish itself in the other direction. Why? Isn’t this a straightforward case of consumer choice? Or, to put it in terms that critics might prefer, of diversity and inclusion? Is one non-Leftist college out of 39 really too much to ask?

Connor Tomlinson: Why conservative students need strong students’ unions to protect their free speech

21 Jun

Connor Tomlinson is the policy director for the British Conservation Alliance and a Young Voices associate contributor. His work can be found at The Federalist, Reaction, and Daily Express.

Universities have been incapable of keeping themselves out of headlines this year. Oxford treated us to two controversies: with Magdalen College removing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for representing Britain’s “recent colonial history”, and Oriel College academics refusing to teach students till Cecil Rhodes’ statue is torn down. King’s College London apologised for circulating a photo of Prince Phillip following his death, in case the Duke of Edinburgh offended anybody; despite him serving as governor for over fifty years. Abertay University hauled a law student before a misconduct tribunal for saying “Women have vaginas”. These controversies iced the cake of a record of security threats and violent protests at contentious events on campus, and caused the Education Secretary to intervene with anti-deplatforming legislation.

However, ministers have been candidly dismissive of these civil liberties matters as “student union politics”, which puts UK campus culture as being a low priority problem. In a year where students have taken millions in debt for fees for tuition and accommodation, only to be told post-hoc that all learning would remain remote, strong student unions are needed now more than ever to defend the consumer rights which governments and universities have trampled on.

While student union membership is compulsory to participate in campus activities – costing each student £225 over the course of an undergraduate degree – some have contested that student unions fail to represent all students. Almost half of students believe their respective unions don’t reflect their personal interests. While this issue should be worked out at the annual ballot box, only 10 per cent of students take part in the democratic process.

Not all students are conscientious: you’re unlikely to make loyal voters of the cohort who write their assignments an hour before the deadline. But should student unions choose to dedicate more publicity to their efforts fighting for tuition fee fairness than they do to issues like banning clapping, cancelling Rudyard Kipling, and defacing war memorials, this would doubtless reduce voter apathy in some capacity. And it would be right in line with their mission, too. There’s nothing more inclusive than a wholesale alleviation of the undue financial burden for all students, irrespective of identity.

Covid hasn’t been the only issue impacting timetables. Since 2017, universities have seen regular rounds of industrial action by UCU members. The largest in history happened in 2020, with 74 universities taking a fortnight of industrial action just prior to the pandemic. Tenured members’ concerns over unpaid overtime were met with restrictions placed on the number PhD students able to teach alongside their degree; putting the next generation of lecturers at odds with their future colleagues. Further industrial action is expected at Leicester, Goldsmiths, Kent, and Chester this year.

Government and university administration are playing a dangerous game by increasing a burden on a thinning academic staff with increasing student intakes. To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, the ideas in a university will play out in society a half-decade later. If academics feel betrayed by the structures they’re reliant on for income, one shouldn’t be surprised when a power-keg of cultural deconstruction staffs our institutions in coming decades.

In which case, we should be wary of what C. Wright Mills once warned: don’t underpay your academics if you want a stable society. Student unions must walk the tightrope of accommodating lecturer concerns, while ensuring concessions are made for students missing more of crucial term time they’re paying thousands for, to avoid producing students as resentful of their society as the academics presently teaching them.

Most of this bad budgeting is the fault of universities’ irresponsible spending habits. With the taxpayer footing the bill for fees, and successive Tory governments set on driving university attendance up to decrease unemployment statistics, university administrators have seen fit to deficit spend to a dangerous degree.

Standards set by the Office for Students also appear to contradict its claim that nobody would be bailed out; setting higher education up to be another “too big to fail” bubble waiting to burst. In addition to pushing for fee rebates, student unions should be holding universities to account for excessive spending, and the steep raises to the disproportionate salaries of their chancellors.

Universities have doubtless used lockdown as a measure to lower operations costs, while charging the same for tuition and accommodation, to patch up their deficit. Students have been treated like cash-cows. They’ve literally been fenced in, had their fire-doors locked, their Christmases commandeered, and fifteen months of social and professional opportunities stolen. After 350,000 students signed a petition for a parliamentary debate on fee refunds, they were given only a partisan row which produced no results. Both government and universities are unwilling to admit fault. Now it’s up to students and their representatives to fight for fee fairness.

With student unions set to remain a staple part of campus life, they should be more proactive in defending the financial interests of their members. Elected officers and staff should take care not to succumb to the bureaucratisation which has already bloated their administrative counterparts in the university. The worst thing at this tough time for students would be for their last line of defence to become a carousel for CV clout.

Interview: Nigel Biggar says human rights are not enough and the British Empire was good as well as bad

16 Sep

If the BBC wishes to balance its coverage of the culture war, it should invite Nigel Biggar to deliver at least three series of talks on Radio 4.

The first would be about his new book, What’s Wrong With Rights?, in which the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford takes issue with the excessive claims for the doctrine of human rights made by some human rights lawyers and other “rights fundamentalists”, and contends, as he puts it in this interview, that “We as a society cannot live on rights alone”.

This opening salvo would be succeeded by a tremendously popular series of talks in which Biggar would demonstrate that the British Empire was good as well as bad, so too was Cecil Rhodes, and would expose the shoddy history being peddled by those “on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists” who assert that “Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West”.

He observes here that they get away with this because “most people know bugger all about the British Empire”.

In Biggar’s view,

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.”

Biggar, born in Scotland, is now at Christ Church, Oxford, has also worked in the United States and the Republic of Ireland, and regards himself as British rather than either English or Scottish.

His third series of talks could be devoted to his defence of the Union, and of the United Kingdom as a “highly successful” multinational state.

Any BBC producer who wishes to check what Biggar sounds like will find, by listening to a podcast he recorded on this theme, that he speaks in a calm, lucid, moderate, humorous tone.

Although he challenges received ideas, there is no hint of extremism in what he says. As he puts it here,

“I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures. Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.”

Unlike some Conservatives, Biggar does not believe withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights would necessarily discourage judges from taking decisions which properly belong to parliamentarians:

“If lots of [European] judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.”

ConHome: “One of the things which prompted you to write your book was a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in cases about the conduct of British troops in Iraq.

“You observe in your introduction that

“the jurisprudence was alarmingly imprudent, partly because the court comprised a majority of judges whose countries had no living tradition of sending troops abroad, whose historical imaginations were accordingly limited.”

“Would it be fair to say that this limited historical imagination is at the root of a lot of the things you’re writing about?

“Many well-intentioned people go astray because they don’t even realise that history has much to teach us – not in the sense of straightforward lessons, but by informing one’s understanding of the world.

“They’re trapped in the present, and they’re therefore extremely susceptible to what you end up calling the moral arrogance of the rights fundamentalists.”

Biggar: “Yes. My first love, and my first degree, was in history, before I became a theologian cum philosopher cum ethicist. The philosophical side of me likes precision. I like clarity. I appreciate the force of logic.

“But the other side of me wants, as it were, ethical concepts to be able to hold their heads up before the messy realities. So that’s why I found myself thinking between philosophy and history a lot, to see if these concepts really can walk on the battlefield, as it were.

“On the point you raise, this had to do with the judgment in Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom in 2011. It had to do with six killings of Iraqis by British troops in Basra in 2003.

“The issue was whether or not the British should have conducted investigations of their deaths in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The crucial question was whether British occupying forces had authority and control, so that according to the court, what applies in Europe should apply in Basra.

“Now I noticed on reading through the judgment that the British judges were sensitive to the fact that formal control – jurisdiction – is one thing, but effective control is crucial.

“Because if, as one British judge put it, Basra was on the verge of anarchy, then you don’t have effective control, and therefore you need to allow the security forces greater leeway, because if the state collapses, no rights get any protection at all.

“The British judgments were that there was no effective control, therefore the European Convention should not be transferred from, let’s say, peaceful Hamburg to anarchical Basra.

“The European Court’s judgment quoted a lot of the British judges, and made clear that the criterion as far as they were concerned was effective control, but then having done that, proceeded to drop the qualification ‘effective’, and just decided that the British had authority and control.

“Why? It’s no coincidence that the judges of a British court belong to a country that has a long tradition of an active military. British judges, some of them at least, were aware of the military realities and the political fragility.

“None of this was apparent in any of the rest of the European Court’s judgment.

“At this point, there was a national difference. The British judges had a sensitivity to a factor that European judges with a different tradition just didn’t have.

“And that was crucial in the judgment. There is a general problem with international courts when they come to judge this kind of thing.

“The same applied to the French, of course. Should the British and the French be willing to submit to the judgment of a court that doesn’t really have the experience or the imagination to make prudent judgments?

“In this court judgment, reached unanimously, there were 17 judges. The European Court recognised that it was a serious issue.

“Giovanni Bonello, the Maltese judge, went way over the top in his political rhetoric. In his case it was clear that in addition to his political objections to the occupation of Iraq, his view was that the duty of the court is to uphold the sanctity of human rights.

“He exorted the court to

“stop fashioning doctrines which somehow seem to accommodate the facts, but ratherto appraise the facts against the immutable principles which underlie the fundamental functions of the Convention.”

“Not ‘to accommodate the facts’ because these principles are ‘immutable’, these principles are sacred.

“It is a hostage to fortune for a military power such as Britain to allow its military operations to be subject to the judgment of a court that does not share its assumptions.”

ConHome: “The Americans don’t do this.”

Biggar: “No they don’t. The Americans submit to no international court, and I suppose for the first time I began to appreciate why the Americans don’t.”

ConHome: “What’s your view on the proposed opt-outs from the European Court of Human Rights which the Government is reported to be considering? Or even that we might withdraw altogether?”

Biggar: “If you read Noel Malcolm’s Policy Exchange study [reviewed here on ConHome], that seemed to me to be a devastating critique of the quality of reasoning in the judgments of the European Court.

“So there are reasons to think about withdrawing.”

ConHome: “Noel Malcolm is pretty definitive about that. He thinks we should withdraw.”

Biggar: “Yes he is. I’m not as definitive…”

ConHome: “You’re an Anglican.”

Biggar: “I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures.

“Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.

“I voted on a 55/45 per cent basis. When I woke up on the morning the result was announced I thought, ‘Oh.'”

ConHome: “You weren’t in mourning.”

Biggar: “I wasn’t in mourning. I thought this is a different set of challenges.

“But back to the European Court. The problem with the way in which human rights are deployed and developed has to do with the attitude of judges, how they see themselves.

“If lots of judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.

“In which case, getting rid of Europe’s not going to help.

“It seems to me the problem is not confined to the European Court.”

ConHome: “We’re quite capable of making our own problems. The threat to the Union with Scotland, although Europe plays into it, is essentially a British problem.

“And I was very struck by the podcast you did a couple of years ago for These Islands, in which you said you had ‘sleepless nights’ before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

And that you very much think of yourself as British, not as English or Scottish. An Anglo-Scot, but really a Briton.”

Biggar: “Yes, very much so. The prospect of not being able to call myself British did cost me sleep. And it made me wonder, ‘Why? Would the world really cave in if Biggar had to call himself English? It’s not that bad. Many people do.’

“But I’ve always had a very fierce and deliberate sense of being British. I’m married to an American, I could have made my life and career in America. I was absolutely clear I wasn’t going to do that, I was coming back here.

“What is it I’m attached to? And I noticed how people speaking up for the Union in 2013, and during the campaign in 2014, the argument was almost entirely in terms of economics.

“And it still is to a large extent. And I thought to myself, that’s important, but it’s not what makes me emotionally attached to the idea of Britain.

“And so after the referendum, which went the right way as far as I’m concerned, I sat down and wrote an article for Standpoint to try to articulate what I think it is that Britain means.

“I said the difficulty is it’s like trying to describe the ground you stand on. You take it so for granted that you find it very hard to articulate.

“I came up with Britain is a multinational state, highly successful, to the point where, on the whole, we identify with each other enough that when wealthy London taxpayers find their tax pounds going north to Newcastle or Glasgow or Belfast or Swansea, they don’t complain, in the way that Germans would complain if their tax euros were to go to Greece.

“So we have achieved – and it was an achievement, it was built up over centuries of co-operation and experience – a level of unselfconscious identification with each other – and of course we josh, we joke, we tease.”

ConHome: “More than that. Dr Johnson was incredibly rude about the Scots, although Boswell gives us the best of Johnson.”

Biggar: “One of the main arguments against Scottish nationalism, with its default resentment of the English, and especially if separation comes onto the cards, and the Scots find the English are not going to give them everything they want, we will find a degree of international hostility between Scotland and England we have never experienced since the 1700s.

“And then there’s the larger issue of the role of Britain in the world. I’m a supporter of the West. Britain is a middle-ranking but an important pillar of the West.

“That’s partly a legacy of our imperial past. There’s a continuity between the British Empire and the American-led international order.

“There are some, on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists, who say that Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West.

“I know enough history to know that Britain equals Empire equals Evil, that’s not true.”

ConHome: “Did anyone reply to your defence of Cecil Rhodes in Standpoint in 2016? You demonstrated that there were good and bad things about Rhodes, but he wasn’t the Hitler of South Africa.”

Biggar: “Good question. Not a single reply.”

ConHome: “This is possibly quite astute of your opponents, not to reply, but still it’s disastrous if you’re not going to get a proper argument about it – if they just avoid the argument.”

Biggar: “My experience of that row, and then the subsequent row about my views on colonialism, is that a lot of the other side don’t know their history, and don’t particularly care to.

“The Rhodes Must Fall lobby, the decolonisers, they’re not interested in the truth about history. And when you say, ‘What you say is not true’, they kind of just move on.

“The agitation is about using history for political purposes. My view is the use of history is pretty unscrupulous. So long as it suits their purposes, they will call Rhodes a Hitler, or in the latest bout of Rhodes Must Fall agitation there was one African PhD student who was reported by The Guardian to have described Rhodes as ‘génocidaire’. 

“There’s no sensible historical ground for that at all.

“But the truth about the past is not going to be the main factor, I think [in whether Rhodes’s statue will be removed from the facade of Oriel College, Oxford].

“What will predominate are emotions about the present, and the felt need to make black minority ethnic agitators feel at home. I say agitators because not all black minority ethnic students or people support the agitators.

“To remove the statue [from Oriel] I think would be to yield to irrational forces, who don’t care very much about the truth about history, and do care about symbolic coups.

“And if Rhodes goes down, all manner of statuary all over the country is going to be in question.

“Rhodes’ record was certainly a mixed one. But there are very few people who are honoured by statues whose careers weren’t mixed.”

ConHome: “Many academics have remained silent on these questions. You express yourself in a temperate manner, but you do speak up.

“For many politicians, scholars and journalists, this is a difficult judgment: when should one jump in to this culture war, often waged in such a rancorous way?”

Biggar: “I didn’t jump in.”

ConHome: “What happened?”

Biggar: “Well I did jump in on Rhodes, it so happened, in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign came onto the stage. I’ve spent much of the past ten years reading about imperial history.

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.

“In late 2017 I published an article in The Times saying we should feel pride as well as shame in the past. A project I had launched in July of that year called Ethics and Empire came under attack by a group of students online.

“Then within a week there was a second and third online denunciation, from 50 Oxford academics and then 200 or so academics worldwide.

“And that took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t looking for a fight. But now, because I care about what’s at stake, I’m stuck into it, and right now I’m half-way through writing a book with the working title Colonialism: A Guide For The Perplexed.

“Though I’m wondering about changing it to something more irenic like Why The British Empire Was Pretty Good.

“How do we handle the cultural war? Well I think we have to inform it. Part of the problem is that most people know bugger all about the British Empire.

“But most people have picked up that right-thinking, progressive people don’t defend it.

“The majority will take the path of least resistance. One thing one has to do is tell the truth about the past. So that’ll be part of my contribution.”

At the end of the conversation, we reverted to What’s Wrong With Rights? and Biggar declared:

“We as a society cannot live on rights alone. Rights talk so dominates public discussion that necessary talk about duties or about virtues or about the common good tends to get pushed to the side.

“Here’s a concrete example of why it matters. You remember in 2015 the Charlie Hebdo murders took place, because Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons of Mohammed that Muslims found offensive.

“And of course in reaction to those murders everybody was affirming the right to free speech. Charlie Hebdo should have been free to do as they damn well pleased and if Muslims are annoyed, that’s just too bad.

“Now of course that was right, and the murderers had no justification.

“But I did think, ‘Yes, OK, we want to affirm the legal right to free speech. But the question of how we handle free speech within the legal parameters is a moral question.

“And in the case of Charlie Hebdo, I thought well, publishing these satirical cartoons of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo – what exactly were you trying to achieve in doing this?

“Because the people who read Charlie Hebdo, they’ll be people on the Left who are probably secularists, who get a kick out of seeing Mohammed mocked.

“Well, you know, it’s a free world, I guess if people want to do that, and enjoy that, that’s fine.

“But what did it achieve constructively? Did it achieve anything positive in terms of relations between French Muslims and other citizens?

“I do think we’ve got a duty to tell the truth, and if it so happens some people are annoyed by that, well that’s just too bad. But we shouldn’t say things just to annoy other people – we shouldn’t spit on other people’s sacred cows just because it gives us kicks.

“Freedom of speech is one thing – having the right is one thing – having the qualities of character to restrain yourself when you should restrain yourself, and to be charitable, or to be just, these are questions of virtue, and if we don’t have ways of training citizens in the virtues of self-restraint, we won’t have a citizenry who are capable of respecting other people’s rights.

“So the legal right’s good, but it just isn’t enough. We need to be talking about the formation of virtue more. Who does it, and how is it done? Which virtues are we going to promulgate?

“Rights are not enough. That’s something I really would like to emphasise.”