The British Empire lasted for nearly half a century and covered nearly half of the globe. It was a major political force and trading power and, among many other things both good and bad, it helped establish the English language as the predominant global means of communication. I suppose I should be thankful; after all, I do make my living as an English teacher. However, the empire and its legacy is not something most school children in the UK really think much about. When I was at school, it was hardly talked about and it had very little impact on people’s day-to-day lives.
Despite this, we had some dim awareness of its existence. It was always there, like a great, white ghost in the corner; something we were conscious of but didn’t want to touch, sort of hoping it would just disappear out of an open window and that we wouldn’t have to come to terms with it in any sort of meaningful way. We wanted to forget it, to let it morph into something benign, archaic, friendly, relying on everyone to just remember the positives (of which there were, of course, some) and forget the rest, hoping that the march of time would simply confine it to the dusty top shelf of history, and this is more or less what happened for a while. Had we finally laid it to rest? Had we got away without really coming to terms with and internalising our recent history and what it truly meant? No, it seems we hadn’t.
There exists those Brits who are still overly, and to most of us, unreasonably proud of what a small island nation achieved, territorially, economically, and politically in the roughly 450 years since the beginnings of the empire in the Tudor period. They continue to embrace the apparition of empire, dance with it, sing to it. Everyone knows someone like this. They’re the local vicar. The building site manager with the dodgy tattoos and predilection for Spanish package holidays. They exist in all walks of life and in all levels of our archaic class system. They’re all too real, and they see themselves as somehow remarkable, connecting their own existence with the world power their forebears established through enterprise, bravery, and adventurous spirit. They nod vigorously when Gareth Southgate, the England football manager says things like: “we’re a special country, we are historically an incredible country and I know I couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman”. There’s a part of me that likes hearing this sort of thing too, but my enthusiasm is fleeting and I quickly put sentiment like this back into its box, knowing how potentially damaging and ultimately, how dated this belief really is in the year 2021.
Counter to the empire enthusiasts, there is another group whose intention is to take the spectre of empire head-on and deal it a deadly body blow, another camp for whom the ghost has well and truly been dragged out of the corner kicking and screaming. They insist that the time has come for the UK to finally face up to its colonial past through the lens of Black Lives Matter and the explosion of ‘wokeness’ that has sprung up in recent months. Although it took place in another country, the fervour surrounding the killing of George Floyd in the USA and the associated outpouring of emotion and anger has led many people to hastily re-assess their stance on the British empire, to look to our recent past for the cause of such brutality and racism. Statues of slave traders and other men associated with the empire have been toppled and their legacies denounced wholeheartedly without, it seems to some, careful, level-headed analysis or historical scrutiny of the empire and the role these men played in it.
This divide is part of what has been termed “culture wars”, in other words, the increasingly heated debate between orthodox and progressive worldviews. The division between traditional views and emerging, often semi-puritanical stances driven and informed by social media and ideas of “social justice” seems to run through every area of society, from politics to food, to the environment. This division in Britain is borne out in a recent study from King’s College London, titled “Culture Wars in The UK” (link) which aims to gather a snapshot of how the British public view different “divisions and tensions” within society. One of the major conflicts it focuses on is the legacy of the British empire and how ordinary Brits now perceive this influential part of our history.
2,834 British adults were surveyed and the researchers found that 35% of them felt that the empire was something they should be proud of. Only 23% of those surveyed felt that the empire is now something that they should be embarrassed or ashamed of. Of course, the majority (38%) took a more balanced view, saying they should neither be ashamed nor proud and that there were good and bad things about the empire.
Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly given the history of slavery associated with the workings of empire, the survey told us that white people were twice as likely (38%) to be proud of the empire as people from ethnic minorities (18%).
Finally, in terms of politics, Brexit supporters and right-wing conservatives are more likely to be proud of the empire (67%) as opposed to people who voted to remain in the EU and left-wing Labour party supporters (around 20%).
To sum up, then, there are very few surprises in the data. Young, left-leaning liberals and minorities are not proud of the empire and its legacy. These are often urban, city-dwelling individuals in places like London and Bristol where we saw, for example, the toppling of the statue of colonial slave-trader Edward Colston.
If you venture into the English countryside, however, you find a different story. In the village in North Somerset where my parents live, I’d estimate 75% of the residents are a. Over 65 b. White c. Brexit supporters. This can probably be said for large parts of rural England especially, and it’s these people who still harbour pride when it comes to the UK and its diminished empire. They were educated in the aftermath of WW2 when children were told how wonderful their country was for defeating the Germans, and they were taught with History and Geography books that still covered world maps with swathes of pink, representing the territory Britain held as its own.
For the rest of us, myself and my close friends included, we’re somewhere in the middle. We are the 38% who take the more balanced view. We don’t see things in binary, convenient black or white. In our 20s, 30s, and 40s, we’re often university-educated. We’ve been trained not to accept things at face value and to question what we read and hear. We sit on the fence on so many of the so-called issues that divide us and unfortunately, we feel our voices and interests are getting lost in the noise from both sides.
We can only hope that after the turmoil of recent times, the country and world at large can settle back down into some sort of comfortable, understanding, and frankly boring ‘grey area’ where we can live together, putting our differences aside for the sake of a peaceful and prosperous life. After all, are the so-called differences associated with the “culture wars” all that stark, or have they been artificially magnified by the likes of social media and profiteering, populist politicians?