A new survey has found that only 19% of British people are ashamed of the British empire, which at its height colonised around a quarter of the world’s total land area.
The YouGov survey also found that 32% of Britons see the empire as more of a source of pride than shame; 37% are neither ashamed nor proud of it; and 12% don’t know.
Meanwhile, 33% of Britons said countries that had been colonised (which included at least 14 Muslim ones in the Middle East and Asia) were better off because of it; 21% said neither better nor worse off; and 17% said worse off.
And when asked if they still wished they had an empire, 27% of Britons said “yes” while 50% said “no.”
At its height, the British Empire was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread.
Advocates of the British Empire say that it provided infrastructure to the colonised countries, and taught them the English language and the idea of democracy.
But critics say it raped and pillaged the economies of colonised nations, practised slavery, subordinated local cultures, and forced Christianity down their throats.
The survey also compared attitudes towards former empires among the public in seven other countries that used to have them: France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany (referring to the 1871-1918 German empire only).
The percentage of those expressing pride in their empires was 50% in France, 26% in France, 23% in Belgium, 21% in Italy, 18% in Japan, 11% in Spain and 9% in Germany.
The high percentage in Holland in particularly striking. Half of Dutch people said their old empire – of which Indonesia and part of South Africa were the most significant territories – is something to be more proud of than ashamed of; with another 37% saying they are neither proud nor ashamed. Only 6% believe the empire is something to be more ashamed of than proud.
The dominant emotion, however, tended to be one of indifference – aside from the Dutch, the most common attitude towards their country’s colonisations is one of neither pride nor shame. This figure is as high as 48% in France and 51% in Spain.