Britain misses its empire more than other major post-colonial powers, poll finds

A third of respondents believe former colonies ‘better off’ as result of British rule

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 11 March 2020 16:15 GMT
Boris Johnson 'recited colonial poem in Burma's most sacred Buddhist temple'

Britain misses its empire more than other post-colonial powers, new polling suggests.

More than a quarter of those surveyed in Britain said they would still like to have an empire, rising to nearly 40 per cent in Leave voters and those who voted Tory in 2017, according to YouGov.

The findings help to illuminate levels of patriotism and nationalism currently underscoring UK politics, particularly in the context of Brexit — which proponents often paint as a chance for Britain to reclaim its “former glory”.

A third of the population believes the British Empire left its former colonies “better off”, the survey also found, reigniting questions over how Britain educates citizens about its colonial past, and the slavery, mass tortures and massacres that underlined it.

Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Japan were also surveyed. Citizens in each of those countries were less inclined to believe their former colonies had been left “better off”, and were less likely to be nostalgic for their countries’ former empires.

The Netherlands, however, emerged as the nation most proud of its empire. ​Half of Dutch respondents, the same proportion as Brexit voters, said their empire was something to be more proud than ashamed of – in contrast to 32 per cent of the general British public.

Ambivalence reigned in all the other nations polled, where the dominant responses were that their former empires were “neither something to be proud nor ashamed of” — including 37 per cent of Britons. ​

“Many Britons, at least many older ones, see this country as one whose leadership in the world is now longer recognised, as a country eclipsed, economically, politically and culturally by larger and more powerful nations such as the US, Russia, China and Germany,” Dr Sascha Auerbach, a lecturer in modern British and colonial history, told The Independent.

“What’s ironic is that Great Britain is still widely respected and admired for many things: its culture and arts, its educational system, its sensible governance, its universal healthcare, its legal structure, its history of sheltering the victims of injustice and persecution, and its basic values of decency and fair play.

“Sadly, these are the same aspects that our current leadership, their advisors, and their supporters seem determined to undermine and dismantle.”

Almost without exception, pride in the British Empire, desires for it still to exist, and beliefs that it left former colonies better off, grew more common in each consecutive age bracket, with over-65s holding the most favourable views of colonialism.

Half of the Britons polled said they wouldn’t like Britain to still have an empire, while 23 per cent said they didn’t know.

“Most Britons have only a vague idea of what ‘the Empire’ was, how it operated, and what its legacies were,” said Dr Sascha Auerbach.

“People typically associate it with a time of British pride, glory and power, when Britain was the most respected, and most feared, nation in the world. It’s easy to overlook how much violence, plunder and misery that process involved.”

Dr Auerbach was critical of the belief – held by one in three Britons polled — that former colonies were “better off” as result, suggesting it “indicates a very sparse historical knowledge of what these regions were like before the British arrived, and an even thinner imagination of what they might have become in the absence of colonialism”.

He cited Britain’s rule in India, which had one of the largest GDPs in the world before its colonisation, and said that China’s history as the only major Asian nation never to be colonised made the argument that colonisation improves a region “very hard to sustain”.

“British rule siphoned off a phenomenal amount of wealth from India, effectively impoverishing an entire subcontinent, and the consequences of those centuries of plundering are still being felt there today,” Dr Auerbach said.

“Britain also made little effort to develop modern industry in its colonies, preferring to keep them as suppliers of raw materials and markets for commodities produced in Britain.”

He added: “The results reflect very poorly indeed on the way we educate our citizens about Britain’s empire. We must take an honest approach to its history, and one that does not avoid discussing its darker legacies — slavery, exploitation, injustice, racism and violence, to name but a few.

“At the same time, we must strive to understand why and how the Empire came about, and what lessons it holds for our present and our future.

“We cannot erase the past, and we should not glorify it, but we do have to grapple with it if Britain is to continue to play a positive role on the world stage. True leaders, good leaders, be they individuals or nations, lead not through boasting and jingoism, but by the example they set for others.”

The view of British imperialism as fundamentally benevolent was essential to its existence, according to Sarah Stockwell, professor of imperial and Commonwealth history at King’s College London.

“The idea that former colonies were better off as a result of being colonised shows the continuing purchase of the belief that British imperialism was in a fundamental sense both liberal and benevolent,” Dr Stockwell said.

“This understanding provided contemporary underpinning to the British imperial project, but few serious historians would now accept it as a broad characterisation of British imperialism.”

Previous YouGov polling on the subject suggests public views of the British Empire are becoming more negative.

Surveys in 2014 suggested 49 per cent of Britons believed colonised nations were better off under the British Empire, and that 59 per cent viewed it as something to be more proud than ashamed of — significantly higher on both counts than in today’s findings.

Another poll in 2016 showed attitudes were somewhere in between, at the time prompting calls for a more balanced, “warts and all” approach to education about colonialism.

The new findings suggest education about the British Empire is working well, according to Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.

“If 37 per cent of Britons think that the British Empire should elicit neither pride nor shame, and 32 per cent think that it’s “more” something to be proud of, that could suggest the most of us think that the Empire was a morally mixed bag,” he said.

“It doesn’t obviously support the assertion of public post-colonialists that we only remember the good bits and forget the bad. In sum, the results suggest that education about the Empire is already doing a good job.”

He also said that depending on the former colony, the view that they could have been left “better off” by British rule was “not implausible”, adding that “among those Britons holding it will be some with non-white skins who are the children of the subjects of empire”.

Angela Rayner: more political education needed in schools rather than lessons about Britain's colonialism

Asked what he felt the results showed about levels of nationalism in the UK, Professor Biggar said: “‘Nationalism’ means many different things, including ‘patriotism’.

“A patriot can feel both pride and shame in his country’s past, and if he’s a healthy patriot he’ll feel both. Contrary to the view of many Brexit-despisers, there is no hard evidence that votes to leave the EU were motivated by so-called ‘imperial nostalgia’.”

The way in which Brexit adapts the narrative of Britain as a major power is hotly contested.

Ardent Brexiteers have often sought to paint the UK’s European departure as a step towards the UK reclaiming its former dominance — a claim that likely prompted Donald Tusk, in his final days as European Council president, to declare: “Brexit means the true end of the British empire.”​

For Dr Auerbach, a link can be drawn between the findings and the Brexit vote.

“These results demonstrate the pervasiveness of a rather frightening, and entirely incorrect, nationalistic belief that somehow Britain can be ‘great’ without building strong cooperative ties with other nations, be they former colonies or our neighbours in Europe,” he said.

“As long as Britons believe they deserve to be driving world events, or that they can stand aloof from them, the decline that so many fear will increasingly become a reality.

“As the old saying goes: ‘pride comes before a fall’.”

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