By three to one, British people think the British Empire is something to be proud of rather than ashamed of – they also tend to think it left its colonies better off, and a third would like it to still exist
Britain has long found it difficult to evaluate its former empire. Imperial nostalgia on television has been shamed by historians, and modern prime ministers have expressed ‘deep sorrow’ for Britain’s role in slavery – but they have also called on British people to celebrate the legacy of the Empire.
Among the British public, feelings tend to be positive. A new YouGov survey finds that most think the British Empire is more something to be proud of (59%) rather than ashamed of (19%). 23% don't know. Young people are least likely to feel pride over shame when it comes to the Empire, though about half (48%) of 18-24 year olds do. In comparison, about two-thirds (65%) of over 60s feel mostly proud.
Economically, the British Empire invested in infrastructure, established trading routes and installed institutions – but it also extracted resources, oversaw famines and in some cases left behind instability. Though many (36%) are unsure, British people do tend to think that, overall, former British colonies are now better off for having been part of the empire, by 49-15%.
A third of British people (34%) also say they would like it if Britain still had an empire. Under half (45%) say they would not like the Empire to exist today. 20% don’t know.
The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year are the latest reminder of the British Empire, and of a determination to present its legacy as constructive. YouGov also asked which countries British people would especially like to do well at the events, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada being most favoured.