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11 Mar, 2020 15:00

Yearning for past glory? Brits more nostalgic for empire than other post-colonial powers, 33% think colonies ‘better off’ – survey

Yearning for past glory? Brits more nostalgic for empire than other post-colonial powers, 33% think colonies ‘better off’ – survey

Were British colonies “better off” for being part of the bygone empire? The answer is ‘yes’ for over one-third of respondents in a new poll, which found Brits tend to yearn more for their imperial past than other colonial powers.

The YouGov survey shared with the Guardian also revealed that more than one-third of Britons are still “proud” of the empire, which encompassed almost a quarter of the Earth’s land area at its height. Pride in empire was stronger only in the Netherlands, the survey found.

Yet, not only are empire-proud Britons more likely to believe the colonized were better off — they are also more likely than citizens of France, Spain, Italy, German, Japan or the Netherlands to say that they would like the empire to still exist today.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Conservative voters were nearly twice as likely as Labour voters to be pro-empire. Somewhat ironically, ‘Leave’ voters, many of whom used Brexit as a rallying cry to “take back control” of Britain’s borders, were more than twice as likely to be wistful about Britain’s colonizing imperial past.

Indeed, just last month, Tory councillor James Airey said Brexit offered an opportunity for the empire to “strike back” now that it is “free from the shackles” of the EU — an ill-suited choice of wording, if ever there was one.

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Things have not quite panned out as expected, however, for those who were hoping Brexit would have the effect of relaunching Britain as one of the major influential players on the world stage. Rather, the opposite seems to be happening, with London losing some of its international clout and looking increasingly isolated post-Brexit.

The results from Britain and the Netherlands were in stark contrast to responses from Germany and Belgium. Asked about the period of empire between 1871 and 1918, only nine percent of Germans said they were proud. Likewise, Belgians were the most likely nationality to admit that their imperialism left colonial territories worse off.

The reason for the belief that the colonies were “better off” could lie in the fact that Britain has not undergone a national reckoning with its past and its empire’s legacy of violence, slavery, famine and division.

Jon Wilson, history professor at King’s College London told the Guardian that while countries like Belgium, France and Italy have more openly discussed their past actions in places like the Congo, Algeria and Ethiopia, Britain “has not had that debate,” he said.

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A bright spot in the figures is that younger respondents were less inclined to be proud of the empire; people over 64 were more than twice as likely to be proud than those in the 18-24 age group. Wilson said this could indicate improvements in the education system, noting that some syllabuses today “don’t shy away from the brutal truth.”

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that the myth of a benevolent British empire civilizing the world with cricket and the English language is very much alive and well in the minds of many Britons today.

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