Public Neither Proud nor Ashamed of Legacy of British Empire

June 23, 2020
Black Lives Matter | British Empire | History

Black Lives Matter protests have continued in the UK for the fourth consecutive week, sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on 25th May. The protestors have called for action against ‘systemic racism’ in the United Kingdom and the removal of colonial references from society, starting with the removal of an Edward Colston statue in Bristol on 7th June.

Some have argued that it is unfair to compare Britain to the United States in this way due to the US’s relatively recent history of segregation and high rates of police brutality, which are not as relevant to the United Kingdom. However, others have argued that the United Kingdom has its own ‘systemic racism’ that needs to be confronted and that its colonial past continues to affect its present. The British Empire continues to have a legacy on the United Kingdom, and some would claim this legacy is one of racism and that pride in British imperial history is misplaced.

In a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies last Thursday, 42% of respondents believed that the situation surrounding race in the UK was different or very different to the United States compared to 32% who believed that it was similar or very similar. However, neither side of the argument achieved a majority.

Moreover, the public is torn as to whether racism against black men, women, and children remains a problem in the United Kingdom, with 40% believing it is and 39% believing it isn’t. Again, neither position appealed to a majority. This issue appears divisive along party lines with 60% of 2019 Labour voters believing that racism against black men, women, and children is a major problem in the United Kingdom while 54% of 2019 Conservative voters believed it isn’t. Perspectives also varied across age groups with only 30% of those 65+ stating it was a major problem while only 30% of 18-to-24-year-olds believe it is not.

When considering whether the United Kingdom is a racist society in general, 41% of respondents agreed that it was, compared to 36% who disagreed. Again, the majority did not fall on either side of the proposition.

When discussing race within the media and government, Britons who do not identity as ‘white British’ are often referred to as BAME, standing for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. As this umbrella term encompasses such a wide range of individuals, the ways in which racism could affect the BAME population may substantially more complex than on this umbrella term allows.

In the poll conducted this past week, 37% of respondents believe that black men, women, and children are less likely to be treated fairly by the police and overall justice system than other ethnic groups and 30% believed they were likely to be treated the same as other ethnic minorities. 19% said they were likely to be treated more fairly. When posed the same question but with regards to the Asian population, 35% believed they were likely to be treated the same as other ethnic groups and 33% believed that they were less likely to be treated fairly than other ethnic minorities. 17% said Asian men, women and children were likely to be treated more fairly.

On either side of the Atlantic, there have been calls to remove statues of figures that exhibited racist behaviour during their lifetimes. In the United States, the focus has been on those associated with the Confederacy and slavery, owing to the country’s history with civil war and slavery, which was abolished long after it was in Britain. In the United Kingdom, the focus has been more broad, looking at all areas impacted by British colonial history. Similar to the US, this debate often focuses on the issue of slavery, as was the case with the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, but it also encompasses those who supported colonialism long after the abolition of slavery, such as Winston Churchill.

In our poll conducted last Thursday, respondents were twice as likely to believe that the British Empire did more good than bad (32%) than believe the converse (15%), with a plurality of 40% believing it was equally good and bad. While a small minority of respondents believed that the British Empire did more bad than good, no majority was established in the two positions different to this view.

Similarly, when asked if they were proud or ashamed of the legacy of the British Empire, 45% of respondents said they were neither proud nor ashamed, 31% claimed to be proud, and only 17% said they were ashamed. Overall, there were deep divisions along political lines, as 2019 Conservative voters were 8 times more likely to say they were proud than ashamed (48% for proud, 6% for ashamed) while only 19% of 2019 Labour voters said they were proud compared to 30% who said they were ashamed.

As Black Lives Matter protests continue, the results of our survey show that outright negative views or feelings of shame towards the United Kingdom’s imperial legacy represent a minority of voices in the United Kingdom. Rather, the public appears torn on the legacy of the British Empire and on issues surrounding race and racism in British society. Given this division, the public broadly seems to be more sympathetic to an understanding of history and race in the United Kingdom as being complicated subjects, with both positive and negative aspects, rather than as outrightly negative subjects.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

Follow us on Twitter