Recent years have seen a growing interest and some considerable debate about the legacy of the British Empire. Critics of the Empire have long claimed that the British often have a rose-tinted view of Empire and that more should be done to educate the public about the damaging consequences of colonialism. The Labour Party manifesto for the 2019 general election include a commitment to:
Conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.
A separate race and faith manifesto pledged to ensure that ‘the historical injustices
of colonialism’ were properly integrated into the National Curriculum.
The Black Lives Matter protests which sprang up across the UK in the summer of 2020 also raised questions about the commemoration of Britain’s colonial past and led in part to the toppling of the statue of the Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston. While some expressed disquiet at the manner of the statue’s removal, several other councils responded by removing statues, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced the establishment of a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, to review the context of the capital’s street names, names of public buildings and memorial plaques.
Recent years have also seen the publication of a number of prominent studies of Britain and Empire by authors, including David Olusoga, Priyamavada Gopal and Sathnam Sanghera, whose work is shaped in part by their own experience of race in modern Britain. To some extent the work by these authors, and others, has been instrumental in reclaiming the history of empire from white British authors who had previously dominated the field.
There has been a, perhaps predictable, response to this from some who claim that seeking to provide a more complete picture of the impact of empire both on Britain and its former colonies is somehow erasing Britain’s past. The National Trust has been heavily criticised for supporting research on the links between colonialism and Britain’s stately homes, many of which profited from the slave trade. Earlier this year the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, reportedly told Britain’s leading heritage bodies that it was their duty to defend Britain’s history from those who would ‘do Britain down.’
In this context it is often noted that for many Britons the Empire is a source of national pride. There is certainly evidence to support this. In a YouGov poll in 2014, 59% of respondents said that the British empire was something to be proud of, while only 19% thought it was a source of shame. In 2020 research by YouGov on public attitudes to empire in eight former colonial powers indicated that the British public were second only to the Dutch in viewing their empire as a source of national pride.
There is, however, some evidence that the British public’s support for empire has changed in recent years. There have been several polls since 2014 which indicate a significant drop in the proportion expressing pride in the British Empire (figure 1). When YouGov asked about this again in 2016, only 44% said they felt that Britain’s history of colonialism was something to be proud of, and this had fallen to 32% when YouGov asked again in mid-2019. This was also reflected in an Ipsos Mori poll from August 2020, in which 34% said they felt the British Empire was something to be proud of.
The decline in support for the Empire, has not, however, resulted in an increase in those who feel ashamed of Britain’s imperial past. Across the four polls mentioned above, no more than 21% said that they felt that the Empire was something to be ashamed of, and in the most recent poll only 16% thought it was a source of shame. It is notable that in the most recent polls pride in the Empire has been replaced by ambivalence or perhaps even indifference, with the largest proportion of respondents (37% according to YouGov and 40% for Ipsos Mori), supporting the view that the Empire is neither something to be proud or ashamed of.
It is tempting to suggest that the decline in support for empire in recent years is a response to events such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the broader public debate about the commemoration of Britain’s imperial past. The context for the four polls certainly may have had some impact on the results. The 2014 poll which suggested high levels of support for the Empire took place at the time of the Commonwealth Games, which may have elicited a more positive view of Britain’s impact on the world. In contrast the subsequent polls all took place in the context of heightened public debate about the negative consequences of empire. The 2016 poll was taken at the time of, and included questions about, protests over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Similarly, the 2020 Ipsos Mori poll took place shortly after that summer’s Black Lives Matter protest, and included questions about support for the aims of the movement. While the 2019 YouGov poll took place in the context of Britain’s protracted withdrawal from the European Union, which several commentators have linked to imperial nostalgia.
These polls and others also reveal some other reservations about Britain’s imperial past. In the 2016 YouGov poll, while only 21% felt the empire was something to regret, a larger proportion (29%) thought that Britain ‘tends to view its history of colonisation too positively’, although 28% thought it was viewed too negatively. Another YouGov poll in November 2019 revealed strong support for the Labour leader’s call for more education about the negative consequences of empire, with 69% supporting the view that historical injustice, colonialism and the British Empire should be included in the national curriculum. Ipsos Mori’s 2020 poll revealed that a majority of the public (51%) supported the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, while only 20% were opposed, with 24% expressing no opinion.
The British empire was vast and lasted for a very long time. It was undoubtedly responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed by man, including slavery and genocide. It also included significant examples of entrepreneurialism, altruism and humanitarianism. The history of empire is complex, as is its legacy. Questions about whether the whole imperial experience can be reduced to a sense of pride or shame are perhaps, ultimately unhelpful. But if, as some of the polls presented here suggest, attitudes are subject to change, then there is scope for debate about that legacy, and if moreover there is an appetite for more education about Britain’s imperial past, then that at least is something to be welcomed.