Patrick West

Bruce Gilley and the ‘problems of anti-colonialism’ saga

Bruce Gilley and the 'problems of anti-colonialism' saga
Getty images
Text settings

Most of us are familiar with the climate of censure and censorship we now live in. People are 'cancelled' and 'no-platformed' for having inappropriate opinions on matters of race and gender, and reprimanded for using the wrong pronoun when referring to transgender men and women. But there are worrying signs that this tendency to shut down those with the 'wrong views' has strayed into the world of books and publishing.

Bruce Gilley, an Oxford-educated professor, is being cancelled for the second time in three years, having a book withdrawn after an online campaign against him. 'The Last Imperialist: Sir Alan Burns' Epic Defense of the British Empire' was due to be the first volume in a 'problems of anti-colonialism' series. Now it won't see the light of day: the book has been scrapped following a petition set up by a Maoist philosopher, calling on publisher Rowman & Littlefield to rethink its decision to release the book. According to Gilley, who was first targeted by campaigners unhappy at his 2017 paper 'The Case for Colonialism', the 'snowballing' of the petition online was enough for the project to be ditched without explanation.

Gilley is not alone. In July, historian David Starkey said sorry after saying in an interview that slavery was not akin to genocide as 'so many damn blacks' had survived. He was right to apologise. But doing so was not enough. As a result of his comment, and the furore that ensued, HarperCollins said it would no longer publish any more of his books. This came a few months after Hachette dropped plans to publish Woody Allen's memoir Apropos of Nothing, following accusations that he molested his daughter as a child (which he denies).

But while there are, of course, plausible arguments to be made criticising Gilley, Starkey and Allen, I can't be alone in thinking it a pity that their writings may no longer see the light of day. While Starkey's recent comments were wrong, his work on the Tudors has been vital to our understanding of this period in England's history. Should we not be able to learn from his knowledge, even if we don't agree with everything he says?

As for Gilley, while his arguments against colonialism go against the grain of mainstream academic opinion, should he not be entitled to make the argument as to why, for all the bad things that happened under colonialism, there were upsides? After all, isn't the purpose of a good book to challenge our assumptions, rather than to simply confirm what we thought all along?

Yet in the world of publishing, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are two hurdles an author must overcome to get their work published. Firstly, it must be good enough. Fair enough. And secondly, the author must hold the right opinions and say the right things. Even high-profile authors are not immune to the second of these criteria. This summer, several staff members at Hachette threatened to down tools and refuse to work on Rowling’s new book, ‘The Ickabog’, because they didn't like all of her views. On that occasion, the publisher admirably stuck up to those staff members. Yet authors without the loyal following Rowling has are more vulnerable to these attempts at silencing writers. 

And while the Twitter mob might not like it, the merits of publishing Rowling are clear: her latest novel which was attacked for being 'transphobic' has since shot to the top of the bestseller charts. So although some publishers are clearly fearful of the mob, toeing the line out of fear and expedience of the financial consequences should they be accused of racism or sexism, more need to take up the old newspaper mantra: publish and be damned.