cover of the book Colonialism A moral reckoning. Opinion: ‘Cancel’ culture and book publishing

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the position of the editorial board.]

Then on 15 March an email arrived from the Head of Special Interest Publishing at Bloomsbury. This told me that ‘we are of the view that conditions are not currently favourable to publication’ and that ‘we will therefore be postponing publication and will review the position next year’. She added, ‘If you are not happy with this, we will … revert the rights to you’.

I was stunned.

Twenty minutes on, I replied, asking, ‘Please explain what conditions make the publication of my book “currently unfavourable” and what conditions next year might make it favourable’. Four days later came the opaque response, ‘We consider that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book and will reassess that next year’.

A knowledgeable source informed me that the top of Bloomsbury wanted me to volunteer to walk away, so that they could appease younger ‘progressive’ staff who had objected to working on ‘offensive’ material. Lacking any alternative publisher, I was disinclined to comply. So, on 29 March, I wrote back, ‘The public is diverse of course, and feels more than one thing … Therefore, could you clarify for me, please: which public feeling concerns you; in what sense it is “unfavourable” to the publication of my book; and what would need to change to make it favourable again?’.

Just over a week later, on 6 April, came the answer: ‘We have grappled with giving defined criteria to “what would need to change to make it ‘favourable’ again?” and find this very difficult to define objectively rather than subjectively. We have concluded that this subjectivity could lead to your book being in a limbo lasting more than a year or it might not but we don’t wish to put you in that position of uncertainty when there are other houses like HarperCollins who would, I’m sure, publish it now. Accordingly, we would like to release you from your contract so that you may find that certainty. I will send through paperwork confirming formal reversion … ’

The latest edition of The Round Table Journal
The toppling of statues – another view

Still reluctant to walk away, I hired a lawyer in the hope that she might report that I could hold Bloomsbury to our contract. Alas, £600 later, I was informed that a get-out clause permitted them to walk away at will. So, with nothing left to lose, I decided to tell the publisher what I thought of them:

The public feeling that concerns you is that of – for want of a more scientific term – the ‘woke’ Left. This is an illiberal movement that agitates to suppress the expression of any views that offend it. Since my book exposes several of its basic assumptions as false, you correctly anticipated that the ‘woke’ section of public feeling would be offended by it. Therefore, rather than publish cogent arguments and important truths that would attract the aggression of these illiberals, you chose to align yourselves with them by de-platforming me. In so doing, you have made your own contribution to the expansion of authoritarianism and the shrinking of moral and political diversity among us.

[The book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning has since been published by William Collins.]

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology, University of Oxford.