Category Archives: Commemoration

‘The British Empire’ YouGov Poll: A Scottish Perspective

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?

For sure.

Comments welcome.


Glasgow and Caribbean Slavery: Acknowledging the Evidence

Ok. So I checked the University College London Legacies of British Slave-ownership website for Mullens who claimed compensation from the British Government on the abolition of plantation slavery in 1834. There are none. This is perhaps unsurprising. As my grandfather’s family were from Kilmarnock, I suspect my ancestors made the journey over from Ireland at some point. Although there were some Irish slaveowners, they were, in general, less involved than the Scots or English in the slave economies of the British West Indies (see Liam Hogan’s recent article for a good discussion of this). It is, of course, possible that if my ancestors were indeed Irish they may have been indentured servants who worked on the plantations of Barbados or Montserrat. I guess I’ll find out more if I ever get around to my family tree. Would I censor any unpalatable facts I did discover? Absolutely not but then I’m not a famous movie star in the public eye (yet). The recent allegation (although the facts are a little more complicated) that Ben Affleck requested the fact his ancestor, Benjamin Cole, owned twenty five slaves in Savannah, Georgia in 1850 should be left out from the PBS documentary series ‘Finding Your Roots’ raises a number of interesting questions. What was the biggest issue in this episode? That Affleck’s ancestor owned slaves, or that he requested the T.V. programme left out the unpalatable aspect? Probably the latter. Indeed in Great Britain, the ancestors of several prominent individuals, including David Cameron, have been identified as compensation claimants and it didn’t generate that much adverse publicity for them. Is there an assumed degree of guilt or culpability across the centuries? This question is pertinent to Scots today, given the ongoing debate about the nation’s connections with New World Slavery. Quite simply; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? What is clear is that censorship of connections with slavery is not an uncommon occurrence – even at executive level. I have argued elsewhere that in Scotland in the late 2000s there was a clear lack of will in government circles to accept the more unpalatable aspects of the nation’s past. I’ll revisit this argument in this blog and comment on developments since. In 2006-7, the then Labour led Scottish Executive (remember them?) produced a booklet that commemorated the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. The booklet was intended to illustrate a history of the Scottish role in Caribbean slavery. However this had a narrow focus. The two historians commissioned to undertake the project, amongst the leading authorities in Scotland, were dismissed after undertaking the research and disagreeing about the booklet’s final content and style. Iain WhyteThe Scots abolitionist historian Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte, stated to the media at the time: ‘In my view, they wanted a particular slant that was not historical. I felt that they wanted certain stories that weren’t possible to produce, to change the text in certain ways. I wasn’t prepared to do that. The government always has a certain agenda and they felt that what we were producing wasn’t what they wanted’. Significantly, the two historians suggested that the booklet should illustrate the deep level of Scots complicity in the slave plantations. Both recommended that there should also be a follow up study to examine the unique Scottish role. However, the booklet’s government editors were resistant to the notion as, they affirmed unironically, the general population in Scotland was unaware of this involvement.SESL Subsequently, the editors of the booklet made 188 changes to the research, which minimised and softened the role of Scots perpetrators. These revisions were not, of course, consistent with the professional integrity of the two academics. After some debate the research was shelved but also embargoed to prevent wider dissemination. The Scottish Executive eventually produced an official booklet that contained a more palatable, watered down version of the role of Scots in the Caribbean slavery. This amnesia and ‘whitewashing’ was directly played out in the event, Homecoming Scotland in 2009, a ‘year-long celebration of Scotland’s culture and heritage’ managed by Event Scotland in partnership with Visit Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government and part financed by the European Union.HC This new initiative to develop the Diaspora Market, via a £3 million programme and £2 million of marketing, encouraged ‘Scotland’s global family to come home’ to participate in festivities, celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and to revel in the achievements of Scots emigrants. The marketing of the Homecoming, however, was firmly directed towards the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. There was no mention of the Caribbean islands at all, in spite of successive waves of young Scotsmen sojourning to the region in the colonial period. So, what has changed since 2009? Firstly, it seems the criticism was taken onboard in the planning of last year’s Homecoming 2014. The Scottish Government funded the conference ‘The Global Migrations of the Scottish People: Issues, Debates and Controversies’ at the Scottish Diaspora Centre at University of Edinburgh, some panels of which directly addressed the Scottish connections with the West Indies. It was therefore recognised that academic debate could, and should, complement popular heritage events. Professor Tom Devine, former Director of the Scottish Diaspora Centre, has been the most prominent historian to challenge the limited recognition of Scotland’s long connection with New World slavery. Due to his strong criticism of the ‘Burns Supper’ school of Scottish history, he was lumped in with ‘British unionists’ by some in the SNP. Although this claim seems a bit foolish now since Devine was a strong supporter of Scottish Independence in 2014, it underlines that commentary and research on this aspect of the national past has the capacity to stir emotions and to generate newspaper headlines. Devine has complemented the criticism with academic output.RSSP He has edited (and I contributed a chapter to) a new book titled Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection which will be published later this year. The volume promises to ‘systematically peel away the mythology and radically revise the traditional picture’ of Scottish involvement with Caribbean slavery. The text adds to a growing body of research on this theme which has broadened from studies of merchants in Glasgow to other regions of Scotland. For example, scholars such as David Alston and Michael Hopcroft of GCU are uncovering more detail about Highland connections with the Caribbean. Academic research and expertise is percolating into popular culture. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Cultural Programme of the Commonwealth Games 2014. Empire, 2For me (although I’m biased), the Empire Café and Emancipation Acts were the highlights of this programme. In their own inimitable way, both events demonstrated the profound involvement with Scots in New World slavery but also powerfully challenged the lack of modern recognition in Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular. One of the most powerful messages was the continuing absence of representation of Caribbean slavery in the city’s museums. Indeed, the city of Glasgow remains the only Atlantic port in Great Britain that was involved with the slave trade and slavery (London, Liverpool and Bristol being the others) that does not have a permanent exhibition or memorial.EA, GOMA Nonetheless, these large scale public discussions of Caribbean slavery in ‘The Merchant City’ were landmarks events and 2014 will surely be viewed as watershed moment in years to come. But credit where it’s due. Glasgow Museums have shown themselves to be willing to engage with politically charged discussions about how the city’s institutions represent this aspect of the past. KG2The city’s leading institution, the Kelvingrove Museum, is how Glasgow, as a city, struts it stuff. However, the ten million visitors to the museum between 2006 and 2012 would have learned much about the inglorious aspects of the city’s past such as sectarianism and domestic violence, although the involvement with Caribbean slavery was conspicuous by its absence. Thus, the How Glasgow Flourished exhibition that complemented the Commonwealth Games was an important project that heralded an important development. One small section recognised the city’s involvement with New World slavery and the impact of exploitation on the development of the city. HGFThis side-lining was perhaps symbolic of the partial modern acknowledgement of Glasgow’s role in Caribbean slavery. However, I did note several comments from visitors in the book stating they were pleased to see that slavery was acknowledged. So, although very small, the inclusion of the information was an important first step: the city’s top institution publicly acknowledged the long connections with chattel slavery. This is a conversation that won’t go away either and the Museums have recognised this. A new collaborative Ph.D. studentship at Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow is now offered to investigate ‘the histories of objects created or acquired during the age of slavery, their provenance and uses, and the ways in which some were connected to slavery or reflective of the consumer culture enriched by slavery’. This body of research will surely be widely influential for years to come. To answer the question; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? It is obvious that censorship breeds derision, anger and even resentment. Similarly, an absence of acknowledgement in large institutions invites criticism about what aspects of the shared past are promoted and prioritised in front of others. The answer then is clear; education, acknowledgement and recognition of this unpalatable history can promote acceptance and eventual reconciliation.