Some Recent Media Appearances

November 30, 2018

I’ve been very remiss in updating this.

In February I appeared on RT to discuss threats to free speech on UK university campuses.

In April, I appeared on RT to criticise government proposals for a “Money Supermarket” style comparison website for university degrees.

Over the summer I appeared on Renegade Inc. to discuss the causes of the Brexit vote.

In June I was on BBC World to discuss an Amnesty report on the violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya people.

In November I appeared on TRT to debate the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Thoughts on the UUK Offer of 23 March 2018

March 24, 2018

UUK and UCU released a statement on Friday setting out a way forwards on the USS dispute. This (very lengthy) post examines the statement point by point, emphasising the concessions made by both sides.

The summary/ conclusion of my analysis is as follows:

  1. Employers have made major concessions only as a result of industrial action. Rational persuasion did not and does not work, and cannot be relied upon to resolve this dispute. Coercion is the only thing that brought the employers to this point and it should continue to be applied until we get what we want.
  2. The main concession employers (UUK) have made is that they will agree to a re-valuation of USS and, if that finds that current contributions and benefits are unsustainable, UUK will agree with UCU a plan to stabilise USS whilst maintaining “broadly comparable” benefits on a “guaranteed” basis, i.e. defined benefits. This is a huge retreat from their initial position, i.e. that contributions/ benefits were unaffordable; therefore, benefits had to be slashed.
  3. However, the agreement constricts this new valuation by demanding attention to “affordability” and the present regulatory climate, both of which are stacked against workers. To balance this out, I would strongly oppose ending the industrial action while talks are ongoing.

Overall, then, there remains a risk that employers will still manage to impose cuts to our pensions. I therefore agree with Sean Wallis at UCL that we ought to go back to UUK and demand a “no detriment” clause to ensure that this is not the outcome of the talks. This is implied by point (5), but is not firm enough. I would also recommend, however, that branches accept this revised agreement only on the proviso that UCU’s industrial action is not terminated. If no “no detriment” clause can be agreed, it is absolutely essential that industrial action continue.

Outside of this specific agreement on pensions we also need to concentrate on three others issues.

  1. Job cuts. One way that employers can make pensions “affordable”, or coerce us to accept poorer pensions, is to sack lots of us. The UUK president, Janet Beer, has initiated redundancy proceedings for 220+ of her staff at Liverpool. The Open University is proposing staggering cuts. More will follow. UCU needs to resist this completely.
  2. The real heroes of this industrial action have been casualised and precarious staff. I have been profoundly inspired and moved by their contribution; at my university, they have been the lifeblood of the strikes, despite the fact that they may never receive a pension or, in the case of PhD students, never actually get an academic job. The strike has raised a number of issues around the marketization of HE, and this is a crucial one. We must not return to the status quo ante where we didn’t discuss these issues, and we didn’t adequately support our colleagues on precarious contracts.
  3. Students’ grievances. Student support for our struggle has been overwhelming and, to me, surprising and deeply moving. They are told by practically everyone to behave like consumers, and they have resisted that. In over a dozen universities, they even have taken significant risks to occupy buildings in support of us. We owe them our solidarity in their struggles, too. So where, as for example at my institution, students are campaigning not only in support of us but also for themselves (in our case, opposing cuts to student bursaries) we need to maintain our support of them, until they win

In other words, this agreement must not become a way for established staff to pull the ladder up after themselves. The bonds of solidarity forged over the last few weeks must be nurtured and attempts to divide us resisted.

Point by point analysis

1. A formally agreed joint expert panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides will be commissioned, to deliver a report. Its task will be to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund.

Comment: Whilst appearing reasonable, this crucial step tries to redefine a political, workplace struggle into an apolitical, technical matter. This is symptomatic of the overly technocratic nature of the UCU campaign to date. UCU has tried to defeat pension cuts by questioning the method by which USS has been valued, the method of the UUK consultations, etc. These lines of attack have merit, in that they expose the “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) line of UUK for the nonsense it is. They have emphasised that actuarial methods vary and valuations are based on assumptions, and have exposed UUK as either utterly incompetent (unable to conduct a basic survey of its own members in a reliable manner) or in thrall to a handful of greedy institutions seeking to destroy USS (especially the bursars of some Cambridge colleges, and institutions more interested in buildings than staff).

However, this approach also has weaknesses. It is vulnerable to technocratic counter-attacks which argue that UCU has got its sums wrong, “misleading” members. But more importantly, it neglects to make the fundamental argument that workers simply will not accept a further pay cut. Recall that, since 2009, we have suffered a real-terms pay cut of 15-20% and two reductions in our pensions, i.e. a cut in our deferred pay. The proposed pension cut has been modelled as a pay cut of 19%, on average. So, in the course of a decade, our employers have overseen a reduction in our living standards of at least half. This is unprecedented in the history of any profession in the UK.

From a worker’s perspective, the unwavering line should be that this is fundamentally unacceptable. Quibbling about the USS valuation does not assert this. It only says that the cuts are unnecessary because UUK/USS have done their sums incorrectly. This in turn implies that endless cuts to our living standards may be acceptable, if universities can persuade us that TINA, using a technical exercise.

This is a wrongheaded strategy, reflecting weak class consciousness among academics. Too few academics think of themselves as workers in opposition to their bosses; they prefer to consider them as “colleagues” engaged in the same collective enterprise (though the profound contempt with which our bosses have treated us lately has changed the minds of a fair few of us). We mostly prefer rational debate to industrial strife. We have assumed that it is our duty to persuade our “colleagues” that our pensions are affordable after all. Surely they will listen to reason? But since when is it the workers’ responsibility to show their bosses that cuts to their living standards are unnecessary? Cleaners at the Daily Mail recently won a 25% pay rise. How? Did they sit down with Viscount Rothermere and went through the accounts, showing him that their demands were “affordable”? Of course not. They simply made their demands and insisted that the bosses met them. It is the bosses’ responsibility to figure out how to meet their demands. Likewise, when ordinary people struggled for the welfare state, universal healthcare, and so on, they did not try to design these systems, showing that they were affordable within the then-existing tax-and-spending envelope. They simply made demands and insisted they were met. As for rational persuasion – does anyone seriously think that UUK would have made even the limited concessions of this agreement without the biggest strike action in UK HE history, plus over a dozen student occupations? They were not persuaded. They were coerced.

“Too militant!” some might cry. So let’s consider the details of this panel, which will occupy a crucial position since it will define the “key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund”. Both sides will nominate an equal number of “experts”. As Mike Otsuka has pointed out, both sides will inevitably appoint experts whose outlook mirrors their own – so how the panel will avoid simply reproducing the political deadlock is unclear. Over 30 meetings quibbling about the valuation before the strike ballot produced no breakthrough. Again, excessive faith is being put in the power of rational dialogue and good will (Habermasian nonsense). A further risk is that actuaries have become increasingly conservative in recent years, under the influence of financial economics. Most of them seem to think defined benefits are for the cuckoos. A retired senior manager in financial industry (the father of a colleague, who goes by “Strike Dad”!) reinforces this concern.

Suppose this panel eventually recommends something like the September valuation, which a lot of people (like Otsuka) have been pushing as some kind of desirable outcome. That still projects a deficit of £5.1bn, implying a deferred pay cut of 15% rather than 19%. Would you accept that? How could you not, if you’d agreed to the panel, it was appointed by both sides, everyone worked in good will, etc, etc, etc? UUK could easily present any opposition to this as nefarious, irrational, even duplicitous.

In other words, the panel can easily be a way of restoring the line that TINA, but this time with full sanction from UCU.

The only saving grace here is the concession made in point (5) – see further below. In brief, this commits both sides to recommending to USS trustees measures to retain “broadly comparable” and “guaranteed” benefits, regardless of what the re-valuation shows. This arguably puts pressure on employers to agree a valuation that supports existing benefits with limited tweaks. However, this is balanced by certain caveats to the panel’s work in point (4) – again, see further below.

2. It will require maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits, until at least April 2019.

Comment: as others have pointed out this is not a concession. The cuts would only have taken effect from April 2019 anyway. What is more important is that the Pensions Regulator waive the 30 June deadline for the valuation of USS. If it does not, a default position will prevail. Given that TPR has been involved in the ACAS talks, however, it is likely that it will agree to this (and it has ignored breached deadlines before) – so getting hung up on this, as some technocratically-inclined UCU members are doing – is a distraction. The real issue is that this creates a “guillotine” for negotiations of April 2019, albeit with some flexibility implied by “at least”. If agreement is not reached by then, April is a dreadful time to resume industrial action. This is a good reason to maintain industrial action (see point (8) below).

3. There will be a jointly agreed chair whose first step will be to oversee the agreement of the terms of reference, the order of work and timescales with the parties. Any recommendations by the group must be based on a majority view of the panel without the use of a casting vote.  A secretariat, jointly agreed by the parties, will be appointed. 

Comment: a useful concession from UUK, because cuts have been rammed through the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) thanks to changes to its governance during previous disputes, with an “independent” chair repeatedly using his casting vote to side with UUK and help impose further cuts. However: a) the absence of a casting vote only increases the risk of deadlock; and b) JNC remains governed in this fundamentally dodgy manner and it is the JNC which will make recommendations for the USS Trustee Board to act upon, not this joint panel. So this is not much of a “win” at all. The governance of USS is still stacked firmly against employees, and there is nothing to stop it trampling on us again in future.

4. The panel will focus in particular on reviewing the basis of the scheme valuation, assumptions and associated tests. It will take into account the unique nature of the higher education (HE) sector, inter-generational fairness and equality considerations, the need to strike a fair balance between ensuring stability and risk. Recognising that staff highly value defined benefit provision, the work of the group will reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework.

Comment: Much of this sounds nice, but the devil will be in the detail. What does “fair balance” mean? What does “comparable” mean? Arguably the atrocious deals previously offered by UUK were “comparable” with existing provision. (And, to be pedantic for a moment, I can already compare the cuts proposed by UUK to my existing pension – it’s a 62% cut.)

The last sentence is more alarming, revealing that the two sides are still miles apart and again underscoring the risk that TINA is restored through the panel’s work. It imposes two limits to the negotiations: a) “affordability” and b) the existing “regulatory framework”.

a) Affordability: as critiqued above, this makes it the workers’ job to persuade their bosses that they can afford not to cut our pay (again), and our responsibility to accept any constraints arising from “affordability” concerns. This concedes a huge amount. It essentially accepts the way that universities are currently being run and financed, and their resultant balance sheets. But we know that this is a large part of the reason the present USS crisis has arisen. Because of the sector’s marketization and the withdrawal of much public funding, vice-chancellors are encouraged to behave like businessmen, maximising income (ferociously (over) recruiting students) while suppressing costs (especially “staff costs”, i.e. our living standards), in order to generate surpluses, which are frequently used for building programmes. This logic was invoked explicitly by Exeter in asserting that pensions are “unaffordable”, but it applies virtually everywhere. The “logic” of this approach is circular: the justification for new buildings is that we need to recruit/ accommodate more students. It’s not clear who actually benefits from this strategy except the bloated “management teams” overseeing it, who can award themselves grotesque salaries by invoking “market rates” (a logic never applied to our own salaries, of course). It is clearly dangerous to accept “affordability” as a constraint when it is so powerful shaped by this market “logic”. Again – the proper demand is: “we will not accept lower pay; YOU make it affordable”. Presented in that way, vice-chancellors cannot simply continue business as usual; they are forced to rethink their “business models” and maybe – shock, horror! – stop capitulating to government-led marketization and demand the restoration of public support to universities. Is this fantastical? I don’t think so. Cambridge is the university most to blame for the USS fiasco, yet its VC has been forced by staff and student pressure to issue broadsides against marketization. Similarly the Essex VC has noted that “principles cost money” (so do Principals; and sadly there are many Principals without principles). These are cracks emerging in a consensus that has dominated VC-land since 2009, which has involved rank capitulation to every destructive attack on the sector going.

b) “The existing regulatory framework” is part of the problem. Various analyses have shown that it unnecessarily imposes “reckless prudence” on pension schemes, driving down benefits. (Sadly, USS is saddled with Bill Galvin as its chair, the man who first crafted these rules at TPR.) Many VCs (including my own) have invoked TPR’s rules as a reason why DB is now “unaffordable”. It is a mistake for UCU to accept a regulatory framework that essentially stacks the deck against its own members. Part of the struggle should be to force a change in TPR’s idiotic rules. Again, Strike Dad reinforces this point.

5. The panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If in the light of that contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.

Comment: This is possibly the most crucial point in the whole proposal, and the one where UCU has probably won the most important concession. The panel is established to define the basis for a re-valuation of USS. Both UUK and UCU will accept this new valuation, and make recommendations designed to preserve “a guaranteed pension [i.e. DB] broadly comparable with current arrangements”. This is where UUK has been forced to retreat the most. Previously, they found a deficit that makes “contributions or benefits” unsustainable, and resolved to slash our pensions. Now, they agree that if this happens, they will jointly agree measures with UCU to “broadly” maintain our pensions in a DB form. That is a massive change from their initial position.

However: a) what “broadly comparable” means is, as already noted, open to interpretation. b) This loads all the “heavy lifting” in this conflict onto the valuation and the principles guiding this work, i.e. onto points (1) and (4). (4) is particularly crucial, since it commits both sides to taking into account “affordability” and the current regulatory framework when re-doing the valuation.

6. Alongside the work of the panel both sides agree to continue discussion on the following areas: comparability between TPS and USS; alternative scheme design options; the role of government in relation to USS; and the reform of negotiating processes to allow for more constructive dialogue as early as possible in the valuation process.

Comment: all to the good, though it remains unclear how these discussions will interface with the work of the panel. Some of the most important issues are being kicked into these parallel discussions, especially “alternative scheme design” and “the role of government”. These terms reference the possibility of the government stepping in as guarantor of USS or the possibility of a “collective defined contribution” scheme à la the Royal Mail pension scheme.

7. Support for this process will need to be sought from the USS trustees and the pensions regulator, recognising their statutory responsibilities. Both UCU and UUK will make the necessary approaches to seek this support.

Comment: see above. Presumably a formality. But UCU should agree to nothing unless these assurances are received.

8. Should this process prove acceptable to all parties this could provide the basis for the UCU to consult its branches and members on ending the industrial action currently underway within the sector.

Comment: “could”! Unless this is a wording error (which seems unlikely), this agreement has not been made conditional upon the cessation of industrial action. This, again, is a remarkable move away from the “capitulation” deal rejected earlier this month, which not only involved the cessation of industrial action but, incredibly, UCU “encouraging” staff to re-do work lost to strike action, for which they had had pay deducted. This clearly shows the extent to which strike action has worked. VCs are sufficiently rattled that they are willing to offer all of the above without any commitment from UCU to call off industrial action. It therefore stands to reason that UCU should not end its industrial action. It would be more than employers are demanding for their relatively minor concessions, and it would remove all pressure upon them to agree a compromise solution. The sensible thing for UCU to do is to maintain its current industrial action mandate, including Action Short of a Strike, until a reasonable agreement is reached.

In a sense, this will allow UCU members to exact revenge for the pay deducted during strike action, for a crisis provoked entirely by the employers (which may not even be legal). It will also remind employers how much they rely on this “good will” to keep universities functioning, concentrating minds and giving them reason to compromise in the joint panel. If this coercion is withdrawn they will have no reason to do this.


Recent press

February 1, 2018

I am quoted in a piece on the Rohingya crisis in The World Weekly.

I am also one of the lead signatories to a letter on the USS pensions strike in The Guardian.


On the Third World Quarterly imbroglio

December 12, 2017

I have co-authored a letter, printed in last Saturday’s Times, with a longer version in Times Higher Education, defending the academic journal Third World Quarterly and its editor, Shahid Qadir. I organised this letter with my colleague Phil Cunliffe at Kent, and it is signed by most of the journal’s remaining editorial board members, editors and board members of many other journals, and plenty of other scholars.

Many people will be aware of the controversy surrounding the publication of an article in the journal entitled “The Case for Colonialism” by Bruce Gilley. This prompted a 10,000-strong petition demanding the article’s suppression, and threats to the journal’s editor. Although the publisher investigated the peer review process and found it was above board, it subsequently withdrew the article, citing “serious and credible threats of personal violence” made against Mr Qadir.

I organised this letter – a longer version of which is still open to sign – for a very simple reason. It is time that academics stood up forcefully for academic freedom and freedom of speech against the Maoist-style insanity now sweeping many university campuses. Barely a week goes by that we do not hear about some new outrage: well-known speakers being banned, harassed or physically attacked because their views are now seen as “unacceptable” and “harmful”; professors being bullied for promoting debate, suspended for failing to use preferred nomenclature, or being forced to leave their posts for declining to acquiesce in other forms of damaging identity politics, like removing all white people from campus; growing evidence of hostility towards freedom of speech, in the US and UK; students being subjected to abuse for non-conformist political views; journals being mobbed for publishing controversial articles.

At times, I try to persuade myself that the people involved in these events are fringe lunatics. Speaking to my own students, I rarely if ever find this sort of attitude on display; other surveys suggest more positive views on free speech; and I am frequently reminded of how unrepresentative student unions and other loud-mouthed activists often are of the wider mass of largely depoliticised students. But it is hard – and unwise – to hide from the growing evidence of intolerance and frankly hysterical views on university campuses. The Third World Quarterly incident is particularly deplorable because the backlash was led by so-called left-wing academics, not students. Moreover, an attack on freedom of expression was thinly veiled as a concern for the integrity of the peer review process, allowing censorious scholars to hide their authoritarian intolerance behind a technocratic desire for quality control.

The response to our opening of the letter has been interesting and revealing, prompting me to write this blog. The timing was unexpectedly significant. Just two days before we planned to launch the letter, a junior government whip wrote to UK universities asking for details of their teaching on Brexit. This was instantly interpreted as an attack on academic freedom and roundly condemned, including by me, in the national press. Colleagues who generally avoid speaking to me about Brexit rushed to congratulate me on slapping down the Tory MP. I was delighted, of course, that so many colleagues were suddenly so interested in defending academic freedom. A day later, we gave them all the opportunity to demonstrate the consistency of their principles by signing the TWQ letter.

Of course, very few of them did. This is because most academics are only contingent supporters of academic freedom: they defend it when it affects them, yet when it does not they are passive, or when it concerns views they dislike, they may be actively hostile. Conversely, as I wrote for the LSE’s Brexit blog:

Whatever my views on Brexit, it was easy for me to condemn Heaton-Harris [the MP who demanded Brexit teaching details from universities] because my commitment to academic freedom (and freedom more generally) is principled and consistent, not opportunistic and determined by particular circumstances. So I am on record, for example, attacking the government’s Prevent programme, criticising no-platforming, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, supporting Thai colleagues threatened by military officers, defending a professor who tweeted favourably about “white genocide”, and attacking the suppression of research on transgenderism on the grounds it could be offensive.

What was striking about the response to our open letter, however, was that many other academics apparently could not even consider (let alone believe) that defending academic freedom was our real motive. Reactions on Twitter focused instead on the colour of our skin and our sex/ geographical location. Rather than addressing the argument, they sought to discredit us by pointing out that Phil and I are white (!) and male (!!!). In other words, our skin pigmentation and genitalia must account for our views, not our commitment to principle. I could not help but think of the abuse to which Shahid Qadir would have been subjected if he was white. Others suggested we were being “colonial” by posing as “white saviours” of a post-colonial journal, whilst also somehow being “OK with colonial brutality and the Holocaust“. Alternatively, we were somehow self-interested careerists, sucking up to senior academics or even angling for a position on the editorial board. We had included a line in the letter saying we would, if necessary, serve on the EB, in order to underscore the seriousness of our solidarity, beyond mere words. It should go without saying that none of the signatories – many of them senior professors and journal editors in their own right – particularly welcome any additional administrative work; we just wanted to make clear that our support was not only empty words but we were prepared to support TWQ materially. When I pointed that out, our critics said we were “walking away”, making it unclear whether they were angry that we did want to serve on the EB, or did not.

The striking thing, then, was the total bad faith. Our detractors could simply not see that the letter was about what it claimed to be about – academic freedom – and nothing more.

We also experienced quite bizarre abuse through the letter sign-up page, much of it submitted so quickly after engagements on Twitter that it was hard to believe that those behind it were not the academics in question. The responses variously accused us of: “white supremacy”, “white male privilege”, “fragile male ego”, “white male gaze”, “racism”, “nazism”, “KKK”, and most bizarrely, “sexual harassment”. We were also supposedly in the pay of the journal’s publisher and wanted to “bring back colonial brutality”. Again, the sheer bad faith was striking, but it was also accompanied by a generous side-order of fruitcake. One particularly energetic troll decided to email signatories to the letter who were journal editors with a hoax proposal for a special issue on genocide, and also organised a counter-letter to the Times.

A final interesting encounter was the discussion of the petition on Facebook, when it was posted by my colleague Alex Gourevitch at Brown, who moves in US “leftist” circles. Although a few of Alex’s colleagues agreed with and signed the letter, most argued vehemently against it. Most striking was the suggestion – from a supposedly leftist professor – that we were wrong to link the death threats against the editor to growing intolerance on Western campuses, because the threats presumably originated in the global south. Similar claims have been circulating elsewhere online, including the idea that Indian nationalists were responsible. I find it striking that these (white! male!) professors are so quick to assign blame for irrational violence to brown people in the global south, yet we are supposedly the “racists” here.

The letter deliberately did not express any particular view on the content of the article, because its signatories genuinely believe that authors and editors should be free to publish whatever they see fit, regardless of the content. In scholarly outlets, work must of course meet scholarly standards, but the letter does not comment on the peer review process, because the publisher found the process to be above board. It comments only on a matter of principle: mob rule should not be allowed to dictate what can and cannot be said in the academy, as is increasingly the case.

This is entirely compatible with different beliefs about the quality of the article and the peer review process. I personally think the quality of the article is quite poor, and I’m sure that most of the signatories think the same. Others have defended its quality as no worse than that of many published articles – and I agree with this, too. An awful lot of crap gets published in academic journals. However, it is patently obvious that the outrage here was not about the academic merit of the piece but its temerity to challenge accepted wisdom, i.e. what offended was its content, not its quality.

Likewise, the peer review process undoubtedly had an arbitrary element and arguably could have been improved – but, again, that is hardly unusual. One reviewer suggested rejection, the other minor amendments; the editor settled on major amendments. This is ultimately an arbitrary (though not indefensible) decision; but what academic has not been subjected to arbitrary editorial decisions? An article I co-authored for Security Dialogue was positively received by three reviewers, who suggested only minor changes; but the editors insisted on much larger concessions to poststructuralist theory (which the reviewers had not requested) and, after demanding three rounds of revisions, finally rejected the article. (I now boycott the journal – so abysmal was our treatment.) Similarly I have had work knocked back from the European Journal of International Relations and the Review of International Political Economy because, following revise-and-resubmissions, our work was sent to different reviewers who did not assess our corrections against the original reviews but made different points, and the editors decided to reject the article. These three are all top-20 IR journals. Editorial caprice is part of the game. Shahid Qadir’s decision to split the difference between reject/ minor changes is hardly unusually perverse. (Some claim that two other “reviewers” rejected the article. In fact, Qadir sent the piece to two scholars editing a special issue to see if they wanted to include it, and they declined. This was not a formal “peer review”.)

The opposition to “The Case for Colonialism”, then, was not caused by its academic quality or flawed quality control procedures but rather that it said something that many consider deplorable. Rather than ignoring or rebutting it, though, the knee-jerk reaction today is to mob the author/ speaker and insist they recant or are silenced. The cost of this illiberal reaction is immense. J.S. Mill rightly argued that the truth can only emerge through a clash of ideas and vigorous debate. We must allow potentially erroneous ideas to be aired, because it is only by testing ideas that we can establish their veracity – we cannot know in advance. Whoever participates in refuting erroneous ideas (or hearing/ reading the refutation) benefits because they have a livelier understanding of the truth. Conversely, if we hold certain ideas to be beyond critical debate, they become “dead dogma”. We “know” they are correct, but we forget the reasons why. We lose the ability to argue our case, to persuade others. Soon, we can only defend our dogma by silencing those who challenge it.

I had first-hand experience of this when judging a school debating competition a few years back. The teams were debating whether the British National Party should be treated like any other party. The opposition argued that, no, they should not, because the BNP are racist. “Why,” I asked, “is it wrong to be racist?” The students were floored. Clearly they had never been asked this question before. Racism was simply wrong. QED. Eventually they stammered their way to answer: racism is wrong because it upsets people from ethnic minorities. “Does that mean we are never allowed to upset people?” No, they conceded; but they were lost. The reason why racism is wrong, of course, is that races are entirely fictive social categories; “races” are not real, they are just nonsensical concepts that human beings have dreamed up to give (false) meaning to completely minor biological differences like skin colour and eye shape. There is no substantial biological differences between two people of different ethnicities. Therefore, to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity is clearly ridiculous. But the students did not know this. Anti-racism was, to them, dead dogma, not living truth.

In a different way, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism is becoming “dead dogma”, which is increasingly being challenged by apologists for imperialism. In this sense, Bruce Gilley’s essay is hardly unusual – it merely represents a growing cultural change. Surveys routinely show that substantial portions of the British public think the British empire did a lot of good in the world and we should take pride in it. Right-wing commentators have responded to “The Case for Colonialism” by agreeing that, indeed, colonial rule brought many benefits (as well as costs), and we ought to be less ashamed of our past. Fatuous “historian” Niall Ferguson has been writing defences of Western imperialism for years, in outlets far more high profile than TWQ. More insidiously, contemporary forms of imperialism and colonialism abound. For the last four decades, years, Western states and international organisations have been doing precisely what Gilley’s article recommended: seeking to re-establish Western-dominated systems of rule over peoples in the global south. From the IMF’s Structural Adjustment, to “humanitarian intervention”, through “state building”, “post-conflict reconstruction”, “transitional justice”, “capacity building”, “shared sovereignty” and – most recently – NATO’s destruction of Libya in pursuit of regime change (in the name, of course, of “preventing a genocide”), the West has brutalised hundreds of millions of people. This has often been cheered on by so-called “leftists”, “liberals” and so on, as well as being favourably discussed in many academic journals. We ought to be grateful to Bruce Gilley for collating all the best arguments for imperialism in a single place, and at least being honest about what everyone else is far coyer about.

Gilley’s essay gave us an enormous opportunity to explain, clearly and succinctly, why imperialism and colonialism were wrong, and why imperialism has created many of the problems to which its reimposition now masquerades as the solution. My suggested response to the publication was for anti-colonial scholars to collectively write a devastating rebuttal – a crowd-sourced article, if you like – in TWQ. You would then have one pro-imperialist piece (which would only get cited once, robbing Gilley of citations, if that had been his goal), and one anti-imperialist piece. This pair of articles would have been a fantastic teaching resource for anyone leading courses on global politics. Recognise there is a growing controversy in society. Put the essays in front of them. Open the floor for debate. If we are so confident that our anti-imperialist position is correct, surely we should expect students to be convinced by our arguments. Then they would understand – truly understand – why imperialism was, and remains, wrong. Anti-imperialism would become living truth, not dead dogma; and they would be able to take on the defenders of imperialism, and win.


VOA, 18 November 2017

November 24, 2017

I am quoted in this article in VOA, on the possibility of Western states applying sanctions to Cambodia after the Hun Sen regime essentially destroyed what was left of democracy.


BBC World News, 26 October 2017

November 2, 2017

I appeared on BBC World News to discuss the funeral of King Bhumibol of Thailand and its political implications. You can watch it here.


Times Higher Education, 2 November 2017

November 2, 2017

I’m quoted in today’s Times Higher rejecting calls for UK universities to cut ties with Myanmar as counterproductive virtue signalling.


Internazionale, 27 October 2017

October 27, 2017

My essay on the Rohingya crisis has been reprinted in today’s Internazionale, in Italian, alongside contributions from Francis Wade and Thant Myint U. You can read it here.


Quoted in The Guardian, 24 October 2017

October 24, 2017

I am quoted in today’s Guardian, responding to a Eurosceptic Tory MP’s efforts to “gather information” on teaching on the EU in British universities (i.e. to intimidate Remainer academics). Naturally, I tell him to buzz off.

UPDATE: the story (and my quotation) is recycled in the Evening Standard, The Times, and RT, and I also appeared on Radio 5 Live to discuss this (listen here, starts around 40mins).


RT appearance, 19 October 2017

October 20, 2017

I appeared on RT to discuss the government’s proposals to impose fines on or even de-register universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech. You can see the clip here.


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