What does the British public really think about the Empire?

Empire 2In the midst of the furore surrounding the statue of the British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, at Oriel College, Oxford, YouGov ran a poll on attitudes towards the British empire. To the apparent dismay of many in the media, the poll revealed considerable support for the Empire. The results of this poll are perhaps not surprising as previous polls on the subject have revealed even higher levels of support for the Empire. However, the results were also somewhat more nuanced than the headline figures suggest.

The poll which received the most publicity asked whether people thought the British Empire was ‘a good thing’, ‘a bad thing’ or neither. Asking whether the British Empire is ‘a good thing’ is not, of course, a very good question. The British Empire was wide, diverse and long lasting. Asking people if it was a good thing, is rather like asking people if they think fire is a good thing, it can be incredibly beneficial and also horribly destructive, and ultimately your view probably depends on whether you’re sitting beside it or in it! Nevertheless, the Empire remains an important experience for Britain and those nations which were part of it, and as the Rhodes statue episode illustrates, is still the source of considerable public and political debate within the UK.

The poll certainly confirmed that a large proportion of the public have a positive view of Britain’s imperial past. More than twice as many of those polled (43%) thought that the British Empire was ‘a good thing’ than those who thought it was ‘a bad thing’ (19%). A similar proportion (44%) thought that Britain’s history of colonialism is something to be proud of, compared to (21%) who thought it was something to regret. However, a significant proportion of respondents were somewhat ambivalent, which perhaps reflects the problem with the question, with 25% agreeing that it was neither good or bad  and 23% stating that is was neither a source of pride or regret. 13% of respondents to both questions said they didn’t know.

EmpireWhile the poll clearly showed strong support for the Empire, if we break down the results there were some interesting variations. Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP supporters were all more likely to agree that the British Empire was a good thing, with UKIP supporters, perhaps not surprisingly, the most supportive. Labour supporters were the only group more likely to think the Empire was a bad thing (30%) compared to 28% who thought it was good, and a source of regret (34%) rather than pride (31%). A greater proportion of men (51%) thought it was a good thing compared to women (35%), while those in the older age categories were more likely to have a positive attitude towards empire than younger respondents. Those in the 18-24 age group were evenly divided with the same proportion (32%) agreeing it was good as bad. In contrast 48% of those aged 60 and over thought it was a good thing. There was also one interesting regional variation. A majority of people in all regions, between 41% and 45%, felt that the Empire was a good thing, with the exception of Scotland, where more people thought it was a bad thing (34%) than thought it was good (30%), and a source of regret (36%) rather than pride (34%).

Perhaps the most interesting question, and one which received less media coverage related to how Britain talks and thinks about its past. This was a much more complex question and the responses, perhaps not surprisingly, revealed considerably more uncertainty. A slightly larger proportion (29%), agreed with the statement that ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too positively – there was much cruelty, killing, injustice and racism that we try not to talk about’, while 28% agreed ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too negatively – we talk too much about the cruelty and racism of Empire, and ignore the good that it did.’ A similar proportion, 27%, thought that ‘Britain tends to get the balance between the good and bad sides of our colonial history about right.’ This rather convoluted question, nevertheless reflects the complexities of Britain’s imperial past, and also the ambivalence which can result when people are presented with a more complex picture.

This is not the first time that YouGov has polled on this question. In a similar poll in 2014 although the wording was slightly different (respondents were asked to distinguish between pride and shame) a much larger proportion (59%) agreed that the Empire was something to be proud of, compared to 19% who agreed that it was more something to be ashamed of. In 2014, they also asked whether people felt that the countries which were colonised by Britain are now better off or worse off as a result of being colonised, with 49% thinking they were better off compared to only 15% who thought they were worse off. Perhaps most remarkably, 34% of those polled in 2014 said they would like it if Britain still had an empire.

The apparent drop in support for the Empire between the two polls perhaps reflects the circumstances in which the polls were undertaken. The 2014 poll was taken at the time of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and also included a question regarding which countries people especially wanted to do well at the games. This may well have helped to generate a more positive image of Empire in the public mind and of its impact on world today. The holding of the games in Glasgow may also explain the absence of the kind of regional variation in support for Empire seen in the more recent poll. In contrast the most recent poll was taken in the context of a fractious debate about the statue of Cecil Rhodes. While the poll still revealed considerable support for Empire it also perhaps reflected a wider appreciation that the legacy of Empire is more mixed.

The marked differences in response, and also the large proportion of non-committal responses, also suggest that the Empire is not a salient issue for the public. That is, it is not something on which the majority of people have a clear and fixed view. Given the distance in time since the end of Empire, not to mention its peak, this is perhaps not surprising. It also perhaps serves to reinforce the argument that there is a need for more education about Britain’s imperial past. A wider understanding of the impact of the British Empire both on the world, and on Britain today, may not lead to greater consensus on the issue but it might serve to move it beyond simplistic chauvinistic debates regarding the sources of national pride.

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