What Made 18th-Century Britain So Innovative?

We are so very thankful to The Critic to allow us to bring to our readers a new series – History Talks – which are podcasts by Professor Jeremy Black, in conversation with Graham Stewart, The Critic’s political editor.

The purpose of these podcasts is to inform and also delight. Each month, Professor Black answers an important question, explores an interesting web of ideas, or simply tells us about things we may not know about. This means that each of his talks is nothing short of a “Grand Tour” of the past, providing exquisite nuggets of historical details that you can carry with you as delightful souvenirs.

We begin this month with an intriguing question – Why was 18th-century Britain so innovative? The ideas and inventions that emerged on this little island in the 1700s changed not only Britian but the entire world.

Things that we take for granted would have been impossible if they had not been invented and created in Britain, such as, free speech, a free press, consumerism, industrialization, urbanization. All this is finely summarized in Rupert Brooke’s famous words:

For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go…

But why did all this not happen in any other country? Why did it happen only in Britain? Let’s listen to Professor Black for the answer.

What Made 18th-Century Britain So Innovative?

The image shows, A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun or The Orrery, by Joseph Wright of Derby, painted ca., 1766.

The Decline Of Postivism: A New Culture War

The current ideological spasm seen widely in the West has a quasi-religious aspect. The idea of racism as a demonic force operating everywhere fits that. So does the iconoclasm, the attempt symbolically to reorder urban spaces in order to drive home a set of political imperatives.

What is most striking is the suspension of any sense of critique of the new order. Debate is so beneath you when you possess all truth. Much better just to steamroll people into subjugation. Debate is seen as oppressive. Instead, edicts are issued from on high, as befits a cult. Those who hold contrasting views are readily dismissed and shunned: if you do not think you are a white supremacist that means that you are guilty. If you feel uncomfortable about being accused of being a white supremacist – that means you are guilty. This is like a blatantly constructed trap; as is the reference to having “a conversation” when that is the very last thing that is intended.

In practical terms, we are seeing a bringing to fruition of the attack on positivism that has been so insistent since the 1960s, an attack that is bridging from academic circles to a wider public. In particular, there was, and continues to be, a critique of subordinating scholarship and the scholar to the evidence; and a preference, instead, for an assertion of convenient evidence that was derived essentially from theory. Empiricism was discarded, or at least downplayed, as both method and value, and there was a cult of faddish intellectualism heavily based on postmodernist concepts.

Divorcing the Arts and Social Sciences from empirical methods invited a chaos that some welcomed but that others sought to reshape in terms of a set of values and methods equating to argument by assertion and proof by sentiment: ‘I feel therefore I am correct,’ and it is apparently oppression to be told otherwise. The conventional academic spaces, the geopolitics of academic hierarchy and method, from the lecture hall to the curriculum, have all been repurposed to this end.

In this view, the statues that are unwelcome are not isolated residues of outdated and nefarious glories, but a quasi-living reproach to the new order. Indeed, the statue of Cecil Rhodes that decorates Oriel College, Oxford is referred to by its critics as making them feel uncomfortable. So also with crests of arms or stained glass, or the names of buildings and streets. All are to be removed because they are seen not as mute products of the past, but, instead, as toxic reproaches in a culture wars of the present in which there is no space for neutrality or non-committal, or, indeed, tolerance and understanding.

Iconoclasm, therefore, from whatever political direction, is a matter of a set of values that is inherently anti-democratic, in that the legitimacy of opposing views is dismissed, indeed discredited as allegedly racist, and anti-intellectual because there is an unwillingness to ask awkward questions and to ignore evidence which does not fit in the answer wanted. Examples of the latter might include the extent of slavery and the slave trade prior to the European arrival in Africa or the role of European powers in eventually ending both. It is possible to debate these and other points, but debate is not accepted if it involves questioning assumptions.

However, such questioning is crucial to understanding the past, which is the key aspect of history as an intellectual pursuit rather than as the sphere for political engagement. Historians need to understand why practices we now believe to be wrong and have made illegal, such as slavery or (differently) making children work or marrying them, were legitimate in the past. It is not enough, in doing so, to present only one side of and on the past because that is allegedly useful for present reasons. Nor to refuse to recognise debate in earlier, plural societies.

People in the past believed that they were right for reasons that were perfectly legitimate in terms of their own times, experience, and general view of the world. Imposing anachronistic value-judgments is antithetical to the historical mindset of the scholar, and is inherently transient as the fullness of time will bring in fresh critiques of present-day values, which will also be wrenched out of their historical context, not least by ignoring inconvenient evidence. Thus, iconoclasm will be perpetuated, providing a form of blood of (stone) martyrs to revive revolution, and to the detriment of any sense of continuity, unless, that is, the sole sense that is sought is that of an anarchic presentism.

Again, there are elements that can be traced to the assault on positivism. In particular, the notion of accumulated wisdom, and/or of source criticism based on an understanding of past practices, have in large part been discarded as a consequence of an academic culture being brought into line with those within it who use virtue-signalling to push their views. Iconoclasm is to the fore here.

The theme of a difficult ‘conversation’ about Britain’s past and its legacy in the present was pushed hard by critics, but their view of conversation was only one-way. It encompassed growing calls for iconoclasm, with Rhodes a target in Oxford from 2015 and Afua Hirsch, in an article in The Guardian, calling for Nelson’s Column in London to be pulled down. She described Nelson ‘without hesitation’ as a ‘white supremacist’ because he spoke in favour of slavery. Hirsch, who pressed for Britain to face its role in the slave trade and attitudes linked to its empire building, backed the Rhodes Must Fall movement vigorously and, in ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’, a BBC programme on 29 May 2018, returned to the attack on Nelson and presented Churchill as a racist. Meanwhile, in February 2018, the controversy was over the exhibition ‘The Past is Now’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in which information boards claimed that “the relationship between European colonialism, industrial production and capitalism is unique in its brutality.’”

The key Birmingham politician of the Victorian period, Joseph Chamberlain, an exponent of a stronger British empire who became Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895-1903), was described as “still revered despite his aggressive and racist imperial policy.” One board attacked Britain’s ‘hasty’ departure from India in 1947 for ‘trauma and misogyny,’ and a second board offers another partisan context: ‘capitalism is a system that prioritises the interests of the individuals and their companies at the expense of the majority.’

Janine Eason, the Director of Engagement, said that it was “not possible’ for a museum to present a neutral voice, particularly for something as multifaceted as stories relating to the British Empire,” and, instead, that the exhibition was both a way to serve the multicultural population of Birmingham and was intended ‘to provoke.” Of course, real “provocation” would have been to offer a different account, one that was more grounded in historical awareness; or, even more, two or more accounts, but such an approach is indeed regarded as provocative.

The toppling of statues is far from new in Britain which has had its share of revolutions. Indeed, in addition to those of political and constitutional transformation, which included the execution of a king and declaration of a republic in 1649, and an overthrow of another king in 1688 leading to constitutional change, came those of three religious revolutions: the Henrician under Henry VIII, the Edwardian under Edward VI, and the Puritan one of the mid-seventeenth century. These saw state-imposed iconoclasm in every community in the country, which was far more extreme than political revolution. Church decorations and paraphernalia, from mass-books and roodscreens to wall-paintings and statues, were destroyed, with particular emphasis on the destruction of shrines to saints, for example, that of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Every monastery, nunnery and chantry was despoiled and terminated. This iconoclasm left the ruined monastery as an abiding image in British culture.

Yet, the brutal iconoclasm of the British past was also left in the past because of the nature of British politics and political culture after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. The emphasis switched to one of organic change and a government of consent expressed through, and in, parliamentary accountability. The British came to convince themselves that their politics was one that was far more orderly than those of most others, and notably so France, where there were revolutions in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871, followed by the instabilities of the Third and Fourth Republics.

So also with the British view of their own political culture, society and emotions. Iconoclasm, therefore, was not part of the British design. There were radical movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they were those of minorities, and there was an essential ‘lawfulness’ about Methodism in the eighteenth and Chartism in the nineteenth.

Attacks on symbols of power and continuity were pronounced in the case of Irish nationalism, but that was a separate tradition and one that did not influence the British one. The continuity of British political culture proved able to absorb the impact of trade unionism and the rise of the Labour Party, while the end of empire did not have the disruptive impact in the metropole that was to be seen in some former colonies.

That was very different to the situation today. In one respect, the disruption of decolonisation is being brought back now into the metropole, and that element is certainly apparent in the case of some members of minority groups from the former empire. Alongside the attempt to use slavery to discredit imperialism, different immigrant sensitivities play particular roles, with those of people of Caribbean descent especially concerned about slavery and those of Indian descent more so about the legacy of imperial rule. Conversely, there is less comparable critique from those originating in Hong Kong about British imperial rule.

In this overall context of contrast, statues in practice have different resonances. That of Edward Colston (1636-1721), the Bristol merchant who played a role in the slave-trading Royal African Company was one of particular note for the controversy over slavery, and the 1895 statue of him was pushed into Bristol Harbour in June 2020. The statues of Robert, 1st Lord Clive (1725-74) in London and Shrewsbury had more resonance for empire and India, and petitions in 2020 calling for the removal of the Shrewsbury one had 23,000 signatures between them. A counter-petition argued that removing the statue would erase part of the town’s history. Shrewsbury Council decided on a 28-17 vote not to remove the statue, and this decision was criticised on the grounds of supposed racism.

Similarly, there was a petition to remove the London statue, while the highly-overrated historian William Dalrymple, writing in The Guardian on 11 June 2020, declared that Clive “was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall … a testament to British ignorance of our imperial past…. Its presence outside the Foreign Office encourages dangerous neo-imperial fantasies among the descendants of the colonisers… Removing the statue of Clive from the back of Downing Street would give us an opportunity finally to begin the process of education and atonement.” And so on with the usual attacks on Brexit being apparently a consequence of an imperial mentality that has never been confronted. Leave aside the extent to which Dalrymple is strong on assertion but no evidence, and that “Little Englanders” were of far more consequence in the 2016 referendum, what you get is a running together of past and present with the modern British supposedly trapped by the past. Therefore, in this approach, the statues have to fall, and the libraries and reading lists must be reordered.

The alleged validity of these views is allegedly further demonstrated by the false consciousness adduced to those who do not share them. Other statues then come up for immediate criticism. The most prominent in Exeter, that of General Redvers Buller on his horse, Biffen, is allegedly rendered unacceptable because he was a general of empire. That Buller was not associated with anything particularly bad is ignored by referring to him as having invented concentration camps during the Boer War of 1899-1902. In fact, one, he was no longer in command then; two, these were not the same as the later German camps, being more akin to detention centres; and, three, such camps had a long provenance, most recently being used by Spain in fighting an insurgency in Cuba in the 1890s.

Why, however, let facts stand in the way? In each and every case, there is misrepresentation in the iconoclastic demands; but that is not the point. We are in the midst of a postmodernist world in which facts are allegedly subjective, an irrational one in which emotion trumps reason, and one of gesture in which the statue is all-too-prominent as a target and the senses of continuity and identity that go with it deliberately attacked. If this is not a culture war, a war on culture, it is difficult to know what is.

The image shows “Fraternité Avant Tout (Brotherhood Above All),” by Asger Jorn, strategically vandalized in 1962.

The Conflict Of Opinions: Iconoclasm And The British History Wars

International movements delight those who like to find commonalities in cause, course and consequence, but each country has a unique dimension in every crisis and there is danger to reading readily from one to another. And so also with Britain. The demonstrations, agitation and commentary seen in 2020, notably in Bristol and London, but in practice across much of Britain, saw both deeper and more widespread tendencies and ones particular to the country, notably to the legacy of empire. The latter provided a matter of intellectual and conceptual confusion on the part of much of the agitation, with an elision of the distinction between discussion of the slave trade and that of the empire. In reality, the two were very different, and one of the major activities of the empire was the campaign against slavery. That distinction, however, was of no interest to what rapidly became a movement drawing together a range of interrelated discontents.

Declared a murderer, as his statue was thrown into the water, Edward Colston (1636-1721) was scarcely the evil personified that is now asserted, in a period in which the interface between history and myth is very active, while a new public history is constructed, mindless of the very many killed in the Chinese model of the 1960s cultural revolution; but then a total lack of context and comparison is part of the situation, as is a failure to understand the nature of tyranny in recent (and current) Communist states. Thus, those who care not a fig about the dire situation in North
Korea today are very happy to make gestures about the situation centuries ago.

Television presenters confidently announced as fact that Colston’s statue was thrown into the very harbour from which his slaving ships set sail, and that it met a watery grave like the dead and dying slaves thrown from the ships from which he made the bulk of his fortune; but he directly owned no slaving ships, and the bulk of his fortune did not derive from the slave trade. In many respects with Colston, we have the problems of addressing many issues for a period in which information is not as full as we would like; not that that prevents commentators.

A child born in Bristol, and fond of the city as a result, Colston left it during the Civil War and was essentially a London merchant. It is unclear how much of his fortune derived from the slave trade, in which he was involved from 1680 to 1692, due to his membership of the Royal African Company, of which he was Deputy Governor, from 1689 to 1690. Colston was also a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery. In practice, much of his merchant activity was focused on trading with the Mediterranean and Iberia, lucrative trades from which he presumably derived most of his wealth; and Colston was involved with slavery for around one fifth of his long business career. For the last thirty years of his life, he was not involved, although, crucially, it is not clear why. It was in that time that he endowed his charities, for education and poor relief, which makes him the greatest philanthropist in Bristol’s history.

The fate of the Royal African Company is separately interesting, as a result of the impact of national politics on its fortunes during Colston’s life (see my Slavery. A New Global History), and that possibly deserves more attention when he, who was later in his life an MP, is discussed. At the risk of being ahistorical, the relationship between his active levelling-up philanthropy and discussion of contemporary social policy and politics is also interesting. None of this concerned the demonstrators in Bristol. The facts of Colston’s life are irrelevant to the protestors who do not want to be told the truth, but, rather to attack the myth.

As far as the general point about memorialisation is concerned, it is surely better if matters are handled in a legal and temperate fashion. Feeling strongly about an issue as a justification for mob action could all too readily be used across a society that includes many who feel strongly about other aspects of belief and activity; and then we would be in a very dark place indeed, one possibly of sectarian violence, or of physical attacks on homosexuals or abortion clinics, or a whole range of what is hated by at least someone. I cannot help reflecting on the image of violence in Sir Thomas More, a play in the writing of which Shakespeare may have had a role:

And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Readers of this who support the Bristol rioters might shrug their shoulders and say the ends justify the means and that I am ‘privileged’ by my whiteness, a charge thrown at me on Radio Four; but of course this passage referred to the ugly May Day 1517 riots in London; riots directed against foreign residents. And just before, as all too often, race is thrown to the fore, these foreigners were white, and the writer vividly refers to refugee foreigners, ‘their babies at their backs.’

As a Policy Exchange public opinion poll indicated, these discontents in practice were only those of a minority, and most of those polled wanted no iconoclasm, but, nevertheless, the impression was created of a mass movement.

The basic constituents were fourfold:

  1. Campus agitation
  2. Discontent among the young
  3. Pressure from the Left, especially the Far-Left
  4. Anger from ethnic minorities.

These categories, however, have to be handled with care, as much of each group, and, polls indicated, only a minority of the young backed the cause of the protestors. At the same time, to label the latter simply as entitled, primarily public-sector, often middle-class, politically correct, left-wingers, would be to adopt an overly tight schematic. More pertinent would be the observation that these were individuals and supporting groups and institutions; for example the BBC and the Guardian newspaper, frustrated by the overwhelming Conservative victory in the general election of December 2019.

Thus, in electoral terms, the demonstrations took place at a very different moment to those in the United States. There was, and is, however, a degree of highly inappropriate mimicking, as with holding up ‘don’t shoot!’ placards, like those in the United States, at unarmed British police. So also with the desperate and disproportionate search for episodes of real or alleged police brutality, which are then typecast to produce an image of alleged systemic violent racism. The reality throughout is that there are very few such episodes in Britain and, in contrast, a very large number of black-on-black killings, mostly linked to drug-dealers and turf-wars. However, the “performative” (a favourite “progressive” word) nature of protest is not to be directed at drug-dealers and the related criminality; a choice that is highly indicative of the irrationality and overt politicisation of the protests.

As another instance of difference with the United States, the “long march through the institutions” has developed further in more statist Britain. This “long march” is especially significant in the case of the universities, where they were particularly (although not exclusively) linked with Departments of English, History and Politics, and with younger academics. In part, this was a process of fighting for consequence in the face of the proletarianisation of a profession being expected to work harder as a consequence of mass-access student entry. There was also the ascribing of established intellectual strategies and academic practices to a new situation apparently full of potential. In particular, the discourse-merchants and zeitgeist specialists found opportunities in a situation that they could define in terms of good and evil.

In part, there was the normative repetition of slogans about inherent White privilege, many linked to reductive analyses on the part of “New Left” academics keen to reduce individuals to categories and to explain people in terms of supposedly inherent thought. Most of those offering this analysis were middle-class of some type or other; so, in order to pose as helping the underprivileged, the critique of a redundant, imperialising, conservative whiteness suited them. Ironically, the principal slants or “disproportionalities” in university entry in Britain were in favour of women as a whole, and, among ethnic groups, of Asian pupils, but truth was not to be allowed to stand in the way of a good narrative of justifiable anger. Thus, BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] was employed as a classification, even though there was much variation amidst it, including very considerable tension. Yet universities lined up to sign up for, and propagate very actively, what was presented as an “antiracist” strategy.

Leaving aside the obvious self-interest involved, with those linked to this process gaining or protecting well-paid jobs, these attitudes helped encourage and disseminate the iconoclastic ideas of 2020, and as part of a rejection of the imperial past, indeed the past as a whole. There were liberals involved who were ready to vary the critique, but the key dynamic was that from a far left who saw all qualification, let alone criticism, as totally unacceptable. Moreover, they lived in a bubble of likemindedness that owed much to social media. Thus, on 22 July 2020, the Registrar, or head of the administration, of Exeter University, sent an email to staff declaring: “If you see or hear any inappropriate behaviour, and you feel able to call it out, please do so in an appropriate way. It may be that a colleague is unaware of the impact of their behaviour, and mentioning this may give them a chance to adjust their behaviour alongside allowing them space to reflect.” Such “space” to “reflect” is steadily becoming tighter, but the entire exercise is reminiscent of Communist activity. Those who do not say the right things can be “called out.” This “cleansing” will doubtless cause a thousand flowers to bloom, as long as they are the same colour and height.

An additional trouble is that now, as apparently “silence is violence,” those who remain silent will also be forced to go to mandatory “retraining” sessions. Freedom of thought and expression, as well as open enquiry, have been totally discarded. This is power at play; but, as so often, it is power masquerading as weak and suffering hardship, so that grievance becomes a necessary drive to action.

An historical perspective on this process would point out that we have been here before. Iconoclasm itself was central to the Protestant Reformation, notably with the destruction of monasteries and of shrines in the Henrician Reformation, named after Henry VIII. The end of sainthood proved particularly damaging for many churches. In turn, more strident Protestantism in the Edwardian Reformation, named after Edward VI and then in and after the mid-seventeenth century Civil War led to fresh destruction, the latter extending to the iconography of royalty, including statues. At that stage, Britain had a tradition of political and religious instability far greater than that of Italy, one compounded in 1688-1689 by the overthrow of James II (VII of Scotland), in what to the victors was the Glorious Revolution.

And yet, thereafter, iconoclasm ceased to be part of the British tradition. In part, this was due to the contingencies of history, notably no successful foreign invasion after 1688. Indeed, the prime damage to British (like Italian) cities was bombing in World War Two. There was also the practice and ideology of a domestic politics that in Britain (although not Ireland) saw political, economic and social transformation, but in a largely non-violent fashion. This, indeed, became a key element of the British “way,” one celebrated by conservatives influenced by the idea of organic change derived from Edmund Burke and by nineteenth-century liberals (and religious Nonconformists) similarly committed to peaceful reform. Taking outsiders into the political system was part of this process, as when the governing Whigs absorbed first (some) Tory policies and then Tory politicians from the 1720s. A key development was that trade unionism followed the path of the system-joining Labour Party rather than system-rejecting syndicalist or communist methods. None of these processes was simple or easy, but they were all important.

To a degree, the situation now is less happy. The system-rejecters who populated the Momentum Movement and were very influential in the Labour Party in 2015-2020, when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn, can be found behind Black Lives Matter, which is keen to replace both capitalism and the police; as well as being heavily white and middle-class. The critique of Empire provides a rhetoric to make their movement popular with tranches of campus culture, current or recent. And thus, the statues are attacked.

There is a present-mindedness at play, but also an absolutist, Manichean, good versus evil worldview, one defined by the would-be setters of the agenda, who have variously been described as Maoist, narcissist and Orwellian; all descriptions employed with reason. There is also a deliberate rejection of the notions of History as both a trust between the generations and a public practice of nationhood; or, seen differently, a determination to transform both into a very contrasting trust and practice. That is a deliberately disruptive process, and iconoclasm is simply one consequence.

Pressure on, and from within, institutions to change, in large part first by admitting institutional and inherent flaws in the shape, in particular, of racism, is part of this process. Thus, educational curricula, and hiring practices in all forms, are to be changed, not as a consequence of debate, but due to a demand for a monoculture of opinion and monopoly of power that is far more serious than any supposed virtue-signalling. I have seen this clearly with the University of Exeter from which I retired in January 2020. Its new self-definition as an “anti-racist university” might be an amusing comment on the racists who therefore supposedly ran it until the new initiative, but this is to be enforced by “unconscious bias” policies that are a clear grab for power by a group of administrators, would-be administrators and related academics, notably in Critical Race Theory, which is problematic in its conceptualisation and implementation. Typical of this is the search for microaggressions which, to put it mildly, are very much in the eye of the beholder. In another echo of the Cultural Revolution, student monitors have been employed at Sheffield University to report on staff and students, and, on the pattern of the NKVD, this only works if they provide the necessary evidence.

An industry is at play, with Advance HE, a data provider for UK Higher Education, pushing universities to meet its Race Equality Charter That it has Trustees who are senior officeholders in universities now agreeing, at considerable cost, to meet its targets, provides at the very least a serious conflict of interest. Moreover, significant sums of money are shown in the accounts as going to Trustees. Doubtless this has all been cleared by the relevant committees of their colleagues, but it will look heavily questionable with the perspective of history, and, at present, might strike some as unacceptable.

That money and status, and an ability to imagine that hard work is giving orders to others, who actually do the teaching, marking and research, are all at play, will surprise no-one who understands how bureaucracies operate in totalitarian systems. What is surprising is that this situation pertains in a democratic system with a Conservative government. So also with the BBC and its treatment of British politics and history, notably of late, Winston Churchill. The News at Ten, flagship programme, on 21 July 2020, was highly critical of Churchill’s stance during the Bengal Famine and provided no balance or contextualisation. To note that Churchill’s statue was one that was recently attacked is pertinent, as is the degree to which the criticism of Churchill by the BBC is part of a long pattern of revisionism in pursuit of a left-wing agenda. There is no equivalent in attacks on aspects of the left-wing past, for example, the Labour government’s role in the foundation of the National Health Service.

Statues are both real and figurative. In the latter sense, attacks from the Left have been on the ascendant from the 1960s, and the Thatcher years (1979-1990) did not really see this process stop. The intent on imposing a twisted narrative of hatred of the country, even a perverse virtue-signalling selfhatred, are issuing a call to destroy gentle, generous, democratic Britain; not a call to destroy statues. The dangers are far greater than ignorance of history; and the idea that a rational review of the real historical facts will help is far too optimistic, because any who argue thus are presented as sharing in the evil of a past that must be destroyed.

Conservatives in Britain are apt to be highly pessimistic about the state of the “Culture Wars,” and certainly Labour has done particularly well in university cities, such as Cambridge, Canterbury, Exeter and Oxford, and in the last election was in the lead among voters aged under 44. Thus, the crowds demonstrating or tweeting against statues are scarcely marginal. Yet, the self-indulgent, obsessed with an ignorant view of the past, should apply their energies to the present in giving direct help to the poor, on their own doorstep, and in large tracts of the World, who have nothing. That point makes addressing the situation more urgent.

Remedies worthy of attention include taking away the BBC’s anachronistic licence fee, reforming and/or removing funding from university quango bodies such as UK Research and Innovation, and the Office for Students, supporting legal and administrative action against universities that limit free speech, as permitted by the law of the land, and shifting the balance in post-16 teaching from HE (Higher Education) to FE (Further Education), with the latter encouraged to focus on vocational education and funded, in part, by money moved from HE. The radicals are the new establishment and their power can only be lessened by radical means, the means also necessary to hold off their malice.

I am most grateful to Julie Arliss, Peter Cull, Bill Gibson and Andrew Sharpe for their comments on an earlier draft.

Jeremy Black is a British historian, and a prolific author. His most recent books include, Military Strategy: A Global History, War and Its Causes, Introduction to Global Military History: 1775 to the Present Day, and Imperial Legacies. The British Empire Around the World.

The image shows the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol, before it was toppled.

Sir Roger Scruton And Conservative Views

The death of Roger Scruton, following swiftly on that of Norman Stone, provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of British Conservatism. Scruton did not greatly contribute to political philosophy in a conventional sense, but he did offer a powerful engagement with aesthetics as a means of assessing and advancing values. He was by no means the only conservative to do so and, in particular, David Watkin (1941-2018), a Cambridge architectural historian, offers a powerful critique of modernism, not least in Morality and Architecture Revisited (2001) and Radical Classicism: The Architecture of Quinlan Terry (2006). In practice, indeed, Scruton was significant in part because he tapped into, indeed helped articulate, a broader current of concern. So also with his interest in past lifestyles, notably hunting. If Scruton took this far further than most who held a commitment to continuity, nevertheless he was able to be more than merely an eccentric precisely because there was a wider concern.

Linking the two, and providing an ideological ballast, was the search for a vision of conservatism that was not simply that of the free market. Indeed, Scruton, like others, felt that the latter represented a form of Liberalism that he distinguished from a Conservatism of cultural weight which, he argued, derived from value and continuity, and not from advantage in the economic (or other) contingencies of the moment.

This approach appears stronger as a result of the growing salience of ‘culture wars’ in the 2010s, notably the late 2010s, and, indeed, Scruton can be seen as an early protagonist in defining an English conservative aspect in this struggle. In that respect, Scruton was different to Stone as the latter was more cosmopolitan in his conservatism, both in terms of his early engagement with Eastern Europe and later with his interest also in Turkey. Scruton also had a strong interest in Eastern Europe, but he was less grounded in its culture than Stone. Both, however, understood that the culture wars in England/Britain took on meaning not only with reference to the trans-Atlantic perspective and context that was so important during the 1980s, not least because of the Thatcher/Reagan relationship, but also against the background of a European culture that had been sundered by totalitarianism and compromised by Modernism and Socialism. Scruton, however, showed almost no interest in history, which was somewhat of a limitation for someone whose mindset was rooted in tradition and continuity.

It is reasonable to ask how far this is helpful at present. To return to the insular, does the future of the British Conservatives depend on their success in handling Brexit (with similar economic issues for Continental states), or will elections at least in part register new political alignments arising from cultural concerns and issues? The Labour Party’s focus in its leadership election of 2020 on the transgender issue suggests the latter, which raises the possibility that Muslim voters, hitherto reluctant to vote Conservative, might do so for cultural reasons in 2024 when the next general election is due.

Certainly, the cultural agenda has an institutional ambit, notably in terms of the BBC and the universities. Although both can be seen as middle-class producer lobbies financed from regressive taxation (licence fee and general taxation respectively) as opposed to user fees, there are clearly politicised dimensions, as discussed, for example, in Robin Aitken’s The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda (2018). The BBC’s favourite minority is certainly the London progressive middle class and it is easily manipulated accordingly by vested interests that play well with it. In contrast, the majority who fund it are poorly represented, a point made abundantly clear in the treatment of Conservatives. Over 40% of the voters who voted in the last two general elections did so for them but you would find that hard to appreciate if following the BBC or university curricula. There is a loop back to Scruton with the limited commitment of the BBC to programming higher culture in primetime. The BBC has always had a liberal bias, but we are now in a ‘culture war’ and it quite visibly favours one side over the other, both in storylines and in tone.

Ironically, however, there is an approach that Scruton, with his concern about market mechanisms and ‘majoritarian’ views would have been cautious about adopting: the insulation from market discipline registered via consumer preferences that other media organisations must live or die by means that, as viewing habits have changed, the BBC looks outdated in terms of its output, claims, financing and delivery mechanism. A similar debate could be held about universities. If Johnson is unwilling to wage the culture war with vigour, especially within key institutions, and in pushing bac against those who wish to hunt for heretics, it may be too late ten years hence.

Clearly conservatism relates to more than consideration of rivals, but the nature and character the public debate is significant. On the personal level, I feel that there is a contrast between an English/British conservatism able and willing to engage with a changing society, and a more ‘ultra approach.’ The former ranges (and this is a far from complete list) from support for Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth, via ‘Villa Toryism’ later that century, to the ‘Bolt from Empire’ and the Thatcherite engagement with the ‘C2s’ in the twentieth, and the more recent determination in the 2010s variously to offer a Broad Church social vision, a Conservatism that can breach the ‘Red Wall,’ and an engagement with Patriotic continuities. These are not merely political expedients or rhetorical devices, but, instead, representations of the complex varieties of Conservative thought and politics. As a result, it is not particularly helpful to seek an ‘ur’ or fundamental conservatism, and that is even less pertinent if the diverse national and chronological context is to be considered. This makes it difficult to move beyond a national context.

In the case of Britain, the role of contingency is particularly apparent in the case of the changes arising from the Blair government. The ‘New Labour, New Britain’ theme was linked to an active hostility toward history. Kenneth Baker’s plan for a Museum for National History for which he had raised seed-corn money and for which I was a trustee, was killed stone-dead, as was Baker’s plan for a history section in the Millennium Dome. More serious was the constitutional revisionism pushed through with little thought of possible consequences and with scant attempt to ground it in any historical awareness. There was also an eagerness to apologise about the past.

Many of the consequences were to be seen in the 2010s, not least a curious ignorance about constitutionalism, and a lack on the part of many of any real interest in a concept of national interest, let alone a capacity to ground it in an historical perspective. In what passes for the educational work this had been related to a ‘decolonisation’ of the syllabus which in practice represents a faddish and rootless presentism that has made more History courses follow those of English Literature in being undeserving of serious attention. That, at the same time, there has been an interest in fluidity in all forms of categorisation, most controversially that of gender, is not axiomatically part of this politicised postmodernism but, in practice, overlaps with it.

Again, conservatism in part is active in this context in advancing concepts of humane scepticism against the determination of assert and enforce that in effect are new regulations on behaviour, speech, deportment, and, in addressing ‘bias,’ thought. This scepticism offers a way to advance a conservatism based, instead, on freedom, debate, pluralism, and an acceptance that the very concept of value should be ground in a relativist willingness to accept contrary views, interests and preferences. Both democracy and capitalism rest on those assumptions. So does a classic English/British conservatism. That this is different to other conservative traditions does not make it better or worse, but the difference underlines the problem with having any unitary concept of conservatism, its past or its future. Indeed, this pluralism is part of the very strength of conservatism, as it can more readily adapt to local circumstances.

Jeremy Black is a British historian, and a prolific author. His most recent books include, Military Strategy: A Global History, War and Its Causes, Introduction to Global Military History: 1775 to the Present Day, and Imperial Legacies. The British Empire Around the World.

The image shows a bust of Sir Roger Scruton by the Scottish sculptor, Alexander Stoddart.

Some of the articles that follow, on Sir Roger Scruton, were also published in the Polish magazine, Arcana, in an issue dedicated to him.