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By Jason Michael
AS A THEOLOGY STUDENT in the School of Hebrew and Biblical Studies in Trinity College, Dublin, I had the privilege of studying under men and women who were scholars in the truest sense; Professor Andrew Mayes (Hebrew), Professor Maureen Junker-Kenny (Theology and Ethics), and Doctor David Edgar (New Testament and Greek), to name a few. This was at the time when Professor Nigel Biggar – of Oxford University fame – was Head of School. Of course, this was a university, and anyone familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett will appreciate the complexities of interpersonal relationships and conflicts in a small pond overpopulated with big fish. Someone, it was rumoured, let the wine get the better of them at a faculty knees-up and let slip their opinion that Prof Biggar was a ‘second-rate theologian.’ There were tensions. But Professor Biggar and I got on pretty well – which is to say our paths didn’t cross too often. I certainly felt I owed him a debt of gratitude for a solid he did me, rubber stamping a transferral document which effectively cut a whole year off my studies for time served and good behaviour. We sat at the same table once in the refectory of the Theological College, and he was a perfectly charming and amiable guy.
Now that the world has gotten a lot smaller thanks to social media, our paths have crossed again. He and I both have Twitter accounts and find ourselves in opposing trenches in the Scottish independence debate. While I advance the case for the independence of Scotland, he follows Jacob Rees-Mogg, Agent P, and History Woman, coos over the Christian tone of the monarch’s speech at Christmas, and talks about the merits of the British Empire. Not the greatest of sins – after all, Nigel Biggar is a Church of England priest; the state church where the Conservative Party gathers to pray to Mammon and read lessons from the gospel according to Mrs Thatcher. Born in Castle Douglas in Scotland, educated at an independent boarding school in Somerset, and a graduate of History from Worcester College, Oxford, of course he is a Conservative, a British unionist, and an apologist for Britain’s imperial past. This stuff, utterly anathema to us, is mother’s milk to him. This is his tradition, his culture, the core of his national identity as British.
We can no more despise him or anyone inculcated in this environment than we can other members of dominant classes indoctrinated by other imperial-colonial ideologies – slave-owning plantation owners, members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Hitler Youth, for example. Neither Nigel Biggar nor Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI had been a member of the Hitler Youth) got to choose when and where they were born and what ideas and assumptions their families and societies would impose on them. We simply cannot hold the results of the accident of birth against someone. This would be absurd and wrong. What we can hold against someone, however, are the positions they hold and the actions they perform as educated adults.
During his visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland in May 2006, Benedict XVI said this:
…these inscriptions speak of human grief, they give us a glimpse of the cynicism of that regime which treated men and women as material objects, and failed to see them as persons embodying the image of God. Some inscriptions are pointed reminders. There is one in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus, the words of the Psalm: ‘We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter’ were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.
Clearly, Benedict had overcome the monstrous ideology of the Nazi regime that had or had attempted to indoctrinate him. Whatever else one might say of Joseph Ratzinger, he was not a slave to his own past, to the assumptions of the sick society into which he was born. He realised the evil of the racial ideology of the Third Reich and of its imperial-colonial ambitions.
Nigel Biggar was born in 1955; ten years after the horrors of the Holocaust were known, after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after the Nuremburg Trials. This was not his past nor that of his society, but he was the child of a new age of awareness. No more could the ideas and assumptions of empire, notions of racial and cultural supremacy, and military violence against innocent civilians be thought acceptable in a civilised society. And yes, it is unfair to compare the history of the British Empire with German National Socialism. The British Empire killed far more innocent people than the Nazis – an estimated 150 million between 1783 and 1997. So, naturally, one would expect a man like Prof Biggar to have dispensed with the idea of British supremacy and the ideology of empire by the time he was wearing long trousers. When I met him, I would not have assumed he was a proponent of these horrors – why would I? We don’t meet Germans and assume they are Nazis, so why would I assume Biggar was a British supremacist and a defender of Britain’s despicable imperial history?
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) January 04, 2021
It came as something of a shock, then, to see on Twitter that Prof Biggar had retweeted a link to a fundraiser for A Force for Good, a far-right unionist organisation led by Alistair McConnachie – an outspoken British Israelite and Holocaust denier. This had to be a mistake. No way would a man like Nigel Biggar be associated with this kind of pond life – it’s not by accident that McConnachie is known in Scotland as ‘Manky Shirt.’ Back in 2001, McConnachie caused a serious rift in UKIP when he sent an email to Christopher Skeate, an executive member of the party, stating:
I don’t accept that gas chambers were used to execute Jews for the simple fact there is no direct physical evidence to show that such gas chambers ever existed… there are no photographs or film of execution gas chambers… Alleged eyewitness accounts are revealed as false or highly exaggerated.
He has publicly defended David Irving’s anti-Semitic revision of the Holocaust and accused – of all people – Pope John Paul II of being misled over the events of the Holocaust and the number of people murdered at Auschwitz. He even attacked the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the largest and oldest Jewish organisation in Britain, of ‘seeking to establish a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas’ because it complained to the BBC about its handling of Irving’s views.
More recently, McConnachie has started to use his unionist platform to preach his British Israelite opinions – the weird religio-pseudoscientific belief that the people of the British Isles are the genetic, racial, and linguistic descendants of the fabled lost tribes of Israel. The depths of craziness in British Israelitism are really not worth our time discussing, suffice to say that it lends itself well to the ideology of the Anglo-British racist far-right and its ideas of ethnic, cultural, and racial supremacy. It is impossible to fathom why a theologically literate man and a Church of England cleric would be supporting this group. We are almost forced to assume that this support is a mistake, that Prof Biggar – himself a dyed-in-the-wool unionist and royalist – sees in A Force for Good nothing more sinister than a unionist organisation on the frontlines of the war against ‘nationalism’ and ‘separatism’ in Scotland – defenders of his beloved United Kingdom.
Nigel Biggar, as I have said, did me a huge favour, and one good turn deserves another – so, I reached out to him suggesting that he perhaps made a well-meaning mistake, and that showing support for these troglodytes is not a particularly good look for a gentleman of his stature. Others in the Scottish independence movement contacted him, doing him the service of informing him of the problematic nature of these nasty people. But nothing. Activity of his social media account suggests Prof Biggar hasn’t been struck down by Covid-19, suffered a serious health emergency, or otherwise incapacitated, but he has not responded to people’s concerns. He has not responded to me. The retweet is still on his timeline. And this is all very worrying.
Looking down through his Twitter timeline, it is clear to see that Nigel Biggar is a committed British nationalist. He regularly shares tweets and articles attacking the Irish Republican movement (for acts of violence against the British Empire – seriously), the movements for independence in Scotland and Wales, and the most rabid attacks on the democratically elected First Minister of Scotland and indeed the Scottish government. Like myself, he is a man who wears his politics on his sleeve. His eyebrow-raising decision to continue to support these vile thugs, then, has me thinking; maybe Professor Nigel Biggar supports these bampot neo-Nazis because he agrees with them. Maybe – just maybe – their view of unionism and Britishness is his view of the union.
But he can’t share these awful views, I thought – he’s a Christian. How naïve of me. He is a clergyman in the Church of England – the royalist English state church. Now, let’s be clear, it is wrong to say that there is something rotten or unchristian about the Church of England or Anglicanism in general. This is simply not true. Yet, in the soil of the English church there exists a patriotic understanding of England and by extension the British Isles – the domain of the Church of England – as a holy or promised land, an idea not a million miles from the ideas of British Israelitism. In fact, this is an idea which finds its roots in the earliest history of the English reformation. James VI and I even thought himself the King of Israel. Over the centuries this racialised theology has informed and shaped the English church, English national identity, and how English people have understood their peoplehood, their monarchy, their state and state church, and their empire. Even the choice of the name of the modern state – the United Kingdom – was a deliberate reference to the mythical-historical united kingdom of Judah and Israel reigned over by the mythical-historical kings David and Solomon.
English religiosity has consistently sought to imbue England with sacredness, and, like Judah’s ancient dominance over the northern kingdom of Israel, this sense of English territorial sacredness is extended to Scotland. Wales (those Edomites) is not factored in – that is just ‘west England.’ The reigning monarch is ‘God’s appointed monarch’ like God’s anointed kings in Jerusalem. The Empire becomes a new Solomonic empire – God’s territory. And this strange thinking, this quasi-religious and nationalist exceptionalism, has never quite disappeared from the Church of England; a church that has shaped England’s national and imperial consciousness, and over which ‘God’s appointed monarch’ – the ‘Defender of the Faith’ – reigns as the head of state and as the head of the church. Perhaps, then, my question – why would Nigel Biggar support this kind of crazy? – was the wrong question. Rather, why would he not?
We cannot read his mind. We can’t with any certainty say that ideas like this inform Professor Biggar’s take on the union and Scottish independence, but there are clues. He supports a lunatic fringe racist British Israelite organisation, but this may be a mistake he has not yet corrected. But are there any other clues? I think so, yes.
In a recent article published in Standpoint, ‘Is Scottish independence now inevitable?’ (23 December 2020), Biggar betrays a delusional belief in the military power of Britain as ‘one of the West’s leading powers,’ and employs a language of the other – the Scots and the Irish – which is at once insanely condescending, imperious, and strangely religious. In answering why, in his opinion, independence is so popular in Scotland, he writes:
The reason lies in separatist nationalism’s nature as a secular religion, infusing quotidian lives with transcendent meaning, justifying the sacrifice of money and even life itself in the grand cause of the nation’s spiritual redemption.
Our politics, you will note, is ‘secular religion.’ This would imply that real, grown-up, politics – qua British politics – is religious religion; it has God and morality and right on its side. We, on the other hand, are just a rabble of ‘idealistic’ and fanatical children. This is the father speaking to a naughty child – patronising to its core, and with heavy religious undertones. Unlike the English, the true British, we Gaels are passionate and drunk. He even refers to those in Scotland who can be persuaded by the union as ‘sober floating voters.’ So inebriated was the Irish ‘revolutionary zeal’ of the generation that won Irish independence, that it ‘left sense and truth trailing in its wake.’ The sober British are not like this, you see. Where the Scots and the Irish are senseless and dishonest in their actions – our ambitions and aspirations are but ‘reckless, revolutionary dreams,’ the faithful and loyal Englishman is the opposite; better in every way. His answer to the union’s crisis is the recovery and development of ‘a morally attractive story about Britain with which they (the ‘separatists’ and ‘nationalists’) would want to identify.’ A morally attractive story about Britain? Now, isn’t this an interesting turn of phrase? He desires the construction of a narrative of Britishness which is both moral and appealing – like a mythical-historical holy land for a chosen people.
On British Empire, I don't doubt it contained moments of great wrongdoing. But so do all large-scale, longstanding… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
nigel biggar (@NigelBiggar) January 12, 2019
We find the same when he talks about the British Empire – a historical evil responsible of the deaths of some 150 million people. He is the head of a thinktank project at Oxford University called ‘Ethics and Empire,’ the purpose of which seems to be to manufacture a revision of Britain’s disgraceful imperial history so as to produce ‘a balanced reappraisal of the colonial past.’ Searching the word ‘empire’ on his social media brought me to a curious remark:
I don’t doubt [the British Empire] contained moments of great wrongdoing. But so do all large-scale, longstanding human enterprises. And like most such enterprises, the Empire also achieved great good, too. How to make an all-things-considered judgment is an interesting task.
No. No, it’s not difficult to make an ‘all-things-considered judgement.’ Imperialism was wrong. It was just wrong. The enslavement of subject people was wrong, as was the slave trade (Biggar also follows an account called ‘Save Our Statues’), the ethnic cleansing, the genocide, the repression. The British Empire was just bloody wrong! There’s nothing to consider here. The Third Reich and the Soviet Empire were ‘large-scale, longstanding human enterprises.’ It could be argued that these too achieved a great deal of good. Hitler got Germany back to work, saved the national economy, gave people free cars and radios. So what?! You give up your claim on ‘good’ the moment you start rounding innocent people up and shoving them into ghettos and concentration camps. Britain invented the concept of the concentration camp in South Africa less than forty years before the Nazis started using them. Between 1899 and 1902 the British forces in South Africa murdered some 48,000 Boer civilians in their concentration camps. Britain’s last concentration camp in Ireland – Long Kesh – didn’t close until 29 September 2000.
Seriously, I don’t know much about his theology, but Nigel Biggar is worse than a second-rate historian. But everywhere in this utter nonsense he spouts is the idea of British goodness – this fictive moral narrative – of a sacred state; a new Solomonic empire, a freaking holy land. And it is right here the exceptionalism begins. Britain is somehow different. Britain can’t be the monster of history because … because, I don’t know … because Gott mit uns?
‘And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ Build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land all you like, but no ‘those feet’ did not walk in England. This narrative is the booze of empire and the opium of slave traders. It’s all a load of rubbish. It is the worst kind of nationalism; the sort that recruits God and right and moral justice to the side of the worst actions of man against man. By all means be proud of your English or ‘British’ heritage, but don’t use your poisonous myths and constructed mythical-religious narratives to pretend to be the adult and us the drunken feckless louts. Pull the sceptre of this septic isle out of our arse and realise that your narrative doesn’t wash in the face of our history and memory, because we know you. We know what you have done.
Sir Hubert Parry: Jerusalem