Decentring the West in the history of world civilisation 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 civilisations (ancient China in Needham’s case) had helped to make the modern world, and to broaden our understanding and sympathies.
Today’s “decolonisation”, though superficially similar, has opposite effects: to mutilate our culture, to sow division, and to narrow our sympathies. Removing Shakespeare, Austen and Chaucer from curricula. Relating our history as unbroken violence and exploitation. Demeaning Mozart and Beethoven as products of the age of slavery. Dismissing “Enlightenment” ideas as racist. Labelling the contents of museums as “loot”, however innocently 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 influence of postmodernism) and political (the shift to “identity” and victimhood). But there are, I think, historical causes, too. We need to ask the basic historical questions “why here?” and “why now?”
“Decolonisation” is a variant of anti-Westernism until recently confined to the political extremes. It is a mutation of anti-colonial nationalism very different from the worldview of the “founding fathers” who struggled for independence. Men such as Nehru, Jinnah and Mandela wanted to take over the institutions created by imperial rulers and modernise their countries by Western methods.
What has changed? One cause is the real or perceived “decline of the West”. Since 1989, when Francis Fukuyama famously announced the triumph of Western values and the “end of history”, Western states have committed some catastrophic errors and their ascendency appears to be waning.
Meanwhile, the apocalyptic pessimism of the radical Green movement, the political and psychological successor of Marxism, fundamentally undermines belief in economic, social and political progress, facilitating the “decolonisation” of science as a form of exploitation. Such attacks on Western civilisation would have seemed eccentric in 1989. Now they appear to be the tide of history, acquiesced in or even welcomed by much of the establishment in Anglophone countries. Yet Fukuyama was right: there is no feasible alternative ideology, and no “decolonised” technology if we wish to limit climate change without mass starvation.
Anti-Westernism cannot provide a viable vision of the future. Instead, it indulges a nihilistic obsession with lurid caricatures of the past. The obvious reason is that this provides in Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand the equivalent for polemical purposes of the US’s history of slavery and segregation. Empire means that we too can be found historically guilty, accused of having inherited the guilt of our forefathers, and faced with demands for reparations.
Most post-colonial states have not since independence equalled the achievements of Western liberal democracy, however, and many have disappointed the hopes of their founding fathers. “Decolonisation”, drawing on nationalist mythology, puts the blame on empires. The Indian politician Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire is the textbook example. It cannot be admitted that some advantages were conferred by the Empire as that would leave post-colonial states responsible for their own failures. So everything is blamed on colonisation, and pre-colonial and post-colonial oppression is passed over in silence.
The pace is often set in Britain by a cohort of academics and students that is frequently highly activist though not evidently representative – it is hard to believe that many overseas students pay large sums to come to British universities if they reject British culture, history and science. Furthermore, in a country whose next government will include senior figures born in or with family links to former colonies, the “decolonisers” seem a disaffected fringe exploiting fake victimhood. Provocative activism offers them notoriety and major career advantages.
One example among many was the seminar absurdly slandering Churchill organised in Churchill College, Cambridge by Prof Priyamvada Gopal, and featuring Dr Onyeka Nubia, Dr Madhusree Mukerjee and Prof Kehinde Andrews. Many academics fear they cannot oppose or ignore such voices without being accused of racism. University and museum administrators act like commercial corporations protecting their marketing image by appeasing protesters.
The continuing saga of the Benin Bronzes encapsulates the confusions of “decolonisation”. Several British universities and museums have decided to return artworks seized in 1897 to the descendants of slave traders in Nigeria. This has provoked protests from American descendants of Africans enslaved in what is now Nigeria, 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, ending the slave trade. Which of course would contradict “decolonisation” dogma.
All this could be dismissed as virtue-signalling froth. But it is part of something bigger and more serious. The West – those diverse societies that try to practise “Enlightenment” values of individual liberty, rationalism, the rule of law and democracy – are more vulnerable than at any time since the 1930s. The Ukraine invasion, the threat to Taiwan, the Iranian nuclear menace and the energy crisis 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 just our fuel bills.
If we are to face up to the dangers, a first step is to stop encouraging the undermining of our culture and history by people who apparently loathe them. We must strengthen the teaching of history by schools and other institutions. Too many people are ignorant of the past and hence easy prey to noisy propaganda. Shame and guilt will not scare away the gathering vultures.