What does the British Empire mean to you?
The results of a YouGov poll on contemporary perceptions of the British Empire were released this week. And it got me thinking (Charlie Nicholas style). Let’s start with the British Empire Wiki definition (I know, I know):
“The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. The empire covered more than 13,000,000 sq mi (33,670,000 km2), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories”.
In terms of policies, it is well known the largest Empire in the world was mainly populated by white settlers who expropriated land from indigenous peoples (Caribbean, America, Australia, Canada and other places). Many committed acts of genocide. The forced transportation of people from Africa in the ‘Slave Trade’ and the development of the racialised chattel slavery created a new labour force (regarded as ‘property’) in many new colonies. The British Government are paying reparations for contemporary atrocities (eg. the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) and face reparative claims for Caribbean slavery from CARICOM. The question is, then, do the British people today think the British Empire was a good or bad thing?
This week, YouGov have provided an in-depth answer.
During fieldwork on 17-18 January 2016, over 1700 individuals were sampled across Great Britain (‘London’, ‘Rest of South’, ‘Midlands/Wales’, ‘North’ and ‘Scotland’). In addition to region, the sample was also properly weighted by age, gender and social grade. Political affiliations were usefully identified (‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’, ‘Liberal Democrat’, ‘UKIP’, ‘Green’ and ‘Other’).
Onto the results.
Firstly, the national picture. 1733 people were asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think the British Empire was – ‘a good thing’ (43%), ‘a bad thing’ (19%) or ‘don’t know’ (13%). These results are hardly surprising: a recent BBC poll showed even greater support for the view that the British Empire did more ‘benefit than damage’. It should be noted the BBC poll was not representative and that the historical narrative on the website leading up to the vote was appallingly one-sided. Nevertheless, historians such as Niall Ferguson have suggested similar views, particularly in his controversial work Empire. In terms of gender breakdown in this week’s YouGov poll; more men than women thought the British Empire was a good thing. As for age, the 60+ sector of the sample were the group with the highest support for the British Empire as a ‘good thing’. In general, elderly individuals (in the sample) were more likely to view Empire as a good thing. Nostalgia is nothing new in these type of polls. In 2011, over 1,000 Jamaicans were questioned in a survey and 60% of the sample ‘held the view the country would be better off under British rule’. In terms of political affiliation in this weeks YouGov poll (based on election vote in May 2015), the results were perhaps as expected. Unsurprisingly, UKIP voters topped the imperialist league table. 63% of UKIP supporters felt the British Empire was a ‘good thing’, compared to bad (5%). The Conservatives were next (Good, 55%, bad, 10%). 42% of Liberal Democrats, those champions of freedom and equality for all, thought the British Empire was a good thing, compared to 16% who felt it wasn’t. Labour supporters were the only group sampled who felt it was a bad thing, and even then the results were almost evenly matched: ‘good thing’ (28%), ‘bad thing’ (30%) and ‘neither a good or bad thing’ (28%). Frustratingly, although the SNP are the third largest party by membership in the UK, the views of their voters weren’t noted. So what does this tell us? As expected, the further right an individual is on the political spectrum, the more likely they are to view the British Empire in a positive manner (and you’re completely fucked if you’re an elderly, male UKIP voter living in the south of England).
There was an unsophisticated response by the tabloid press. The Independent published ‘5 of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Empire’ including Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, partitioning of India, the Mau Mau uprising and famines and India. In an associated, simplistic article in the same paper, @joncstone decided the ‘British people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire’. Whilst technically true based on the ‘good thing’ (43%) to ‘bad thing’ (19%) British national ratio, a more focused examination of the data provides a more nuanced picture. In fact, Jon Stone’s headline should have read ‘English and perhaps Welsh people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire, poll finds’. Indeed, Scotland was the only ‘region’ sampled where more people said the British Empire was a ‘bad thing’ compared to a ‘good thing’, generally speaking (although it should be noted that Wales was lumped in with the Midlands).
The regional sampling was the section that interested me the most. As an historian of Scots in the Caribbean in the colonial period, it’s been interesting over the last few years to see how we Scots are dealing with our long and often unpalatable involvement in the British Empire. Let’s examine the regional breakdown of views. All English ‘regions’ (and Wales) felt the British Empire was a ‘good thing’ with the Midland and Wales having the highest support (45% good, 14% bad). Individuals in Scotland were the only group sampled in Great Britain who felt the British Empire was a bad thing (34%) compared to good (30%). Although close, this represents a remarkable result given the importance of Scots to the British Empire and the importance of the British Empire to Scotland. Indeed, historians have argued that Scottish involvement across the British Empire was the mortar that has historically held the Union between Scotland and England in place. Moreover, it seems a paradox that Scots have often been accused of historical amnesia about their historical involvement in Caribbean slavery (as exemplified by the absence of acknowledgement in the city’s museums, as well as national tapestries). Devine has recently summarised thoughts on these issues in his chapter ‘Lost to History’ in Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past.
In the next YouGov question: ‘Do you think Britain’s history of colonialism is….’ – 1) ‘Part of our history that we should proud happened’, 2) ‘Part of our history that we should regret happening’. The national picture was 44% of the sample were proud, and 21% regretted British colonialism. However, once again, all ‘regions’ except Scotland felt we should be ‘proud’ of British colonialism with the Midland and Wales again having the highest ratings (46% proud, 16% regret). Individuals in Scotland were the only group sampled in Great Britain who regretted British colonialism (36%) compared to the 34 percent of Scots who were ‘proud’. Again, we see a clear regional difference.
The third question was a little more nuanced and asked opinions of how we, as a nation, should address our imperial past. ‘Thinking about how Britain talks and thinks about our past, do you think…’ with the answers 1) ‘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’ 2) ‘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’, 3) ‘Britain tends to get the balance between the good and bad sides of our colonial history about right’. Whilst this phrase ‘talks and thinks about our past’ is ambiguous, I would have interpreted that part of the question in relation to how the British Empire is represented in museums and the media as well as in academic history texts and general works. The national picture was as follows: 1) Too positive (29%); 2) too negative (28%); and 3) balanced (27%). For this question, Scots were the group with the highest response for ‘too positive’ (49% of Scots opted for question 1, compared to 19% for question 2). These findings suggest that, we, as a nation, tend to view our imperial past too positively. This may not come as a surprise. Scottish museums have been criticised in recent years for their lack of acknowledgement of the nation’s involvement in Empire, particularly with regards to Caribbean slavery. There is an almost complete absence of acknowledgement in prominent institutions yet there has been much academic research on Empire and slavery over the last 10-15 years (as well as recent publicity). Has a new consciousness developed? Are Scots sick of watered down exhibits and ‘historical’ texts like that produced by the Scottish Executive in 2007?
The fourth question must be viewed in the context of the #RhodesMustFall movement. Cecil Rhodes, a British colonialist, funded scholarships for students at Oxford University and there are several statues of him including at Oriel College, Oxford. Just today there has been a motion by Oxford Union to remove the Rhodes statue, although there is another argument that it should remain (like streets named after slave-owners in Glasgow) as a reminder of the horrors of the British Empire. Should these appaling edifices remain to remind us? Or shoukd they be removed? The question in the YouGov poll was: ‘Do you think the statue of Cecil Rhodes should or should not be taken down?’ This was uniform across Great Britain, with all regions stating the statue should remain. UKIP supporters were strongly in support of it remaining (75%), compared to 47% of Labour voters sampled. 63% of those sampled in the Midlands/Wales were in support of it remaining (the highest regional support) compared to 46% of Scots (the lowest). Scotland did have the highest percentage of people who wanted the statue removed (19%), although it must be noted they were far outweighed by those who wanted it to remain. It’s difficult to draw some conclusions here, and it would have been interesting if the question had focused on a well-known Scottish genocidal racist (of which there were many).
Lest I am accused of writing a Scottish-centric analysis, it should be underlined it was a small sample (albeit properly weighted). Much more comparative, qualitative research is required on this theme. My analysis is, of course, superficial and speculative. At the same time, the results suggests that Scots view the British Empire differently than the English and Welsh, a surprising result which throws up a number of fascinating possibilities.
Do these results reflect a new consciousness amongst Scots about the horrors of the British Empire? Does this poll mark the beginning of the end of accusations of Scots’ historical amnesia regarding Empire? Does this poll suggest there is a new found acceptance of the Scottish national past, warts and all, and a willingness to address it? Or do the results reflect the precariousness of the Union after the Scottish referendum of 2014, and the rejection of a jingoistic English/British national identity that revels in past imperial glories?
Perhaps a mixture of all?
Is much more education required to enlighten those who approve, nay revel, in British Imperialism?