Widening Participation Talk at Sir John Talbot's Comprehensive School, Whitchurch, and at King Edward VI College, Nuneaton
On November 12th 2019 I revisited my old school, Sir John Talbot’s in Whitchurch Shropshire, to provide a follow-up session to the one I delivered in October. This time, though, it was just the Year 13s who were in attendance. The title of my talk was: ‘How should we deal today with the legacy of the British Empire?’ I ran the students through a number of examples of how UK universities are attempting to confront the way in which their history intersects with the history of British imperialism and the history of British slave trading. Different institutions have adopted very different strategies, and I utilised interactive technology to allow the students to use their phones to vote in real time on the effectiveness of those strategies. The actions of UK universities are often a means of signalling contrition at their complicity in imperial structures, which opened up the discussion to a focus on political apologies more generally. The students were able to see just how difficult political actors have found it to offer an unconditional apology for even some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire.
I then gave a version of a very similar talk to the Think Higher day at King Edward VI College in Nuneaton on January 30th 2020. Once again, interactive smartphone technology was used to enable the students to participate in the lecture and also to guess the opinions that they believed their classmates held on strategies for confronting Britain's imperial past and devising suitable commemorations of Empire.
On November 14th 2018 I gave a talk to the Nuneaton Branch of the Historical Association. The ttile of my talk was 'Adam Smith, Enlightenment Sceptic of Empire'. In it, I suggested that the qualification 'Enlightenment' is important. There should be no doubting the fact that Smith, contrary to the position taken by the vast majority of his contemporaries, was opposed to Empire. Some of the most energetic performances recounted in his Glasgow Lectures came when he was outlining his attack on Empire; the same was also true of some of the least guarded passages in The Wealth of Nations. But Smith's scepticism of Empire was definitely of its time. He had overwhelmingly an economic critique of Empire, perhaps for the first time showing how it was possible to turn the image of economic inefficiencies into a political argument. It is much more usual today to think badly of Empire for the way in which it infringed upon all reasonable assumptions about human rights. Interestingly, such an argument can be reconstructed from the sympathy procedure that forms the cornerstone of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, but it was one that Smith did not make for himself. Moreover, he raised to the position of role models in his Wealth of Nations the Glasgow tobacco merchants who he knew quite well. Yet they benefited from the economics of Empire in exactly the same way as did the East India Company, the real focus of his critique. And they created monopoly conditions from which to benefit in exactly the same way as did it. Moreover, the tobacco merchants made themselves rich on the back of a system of plantation that relied upon the labour of enslaved people. Smith was also a critic of slavery, but once again this was really only an economic argument. The system of slavery can never be as efficient as the system of free labour, he argued, because enslaved people simply do not have the incentives to work hard that free labourers do.
On March 9th 2018 I delivered a lecture entitled 'The 'History Wars': How Should the History of the British Empire be Taught in Schools?' to Year 12s at King Edward VI College in Nuneaton. 65 students attended the lecture and then stayed as we outlined this year's Colonial Hangover competition.