Research by the polling company YouGov has found that over two-thirds of people in Britain believe that the country’s former empire was either something to be proud of or was something to be neither proud or ashamed of. Only a small minority were of the opinion that the British Empire was something to be ashamed of. And while the headline figure in the UK was exceeded by a greater number in Belgium who expressed no regret over the existence of its empire the British results match previous polling on the controversial subject of colonialism. Indeed, to make matters worse, the present survey found that a majority of Britons were convinced that colonialism was better for the countries that had been colonised or that it had made no difference to their development. Only 17% of those questioned believed that colonialism had made the colonised worse off. Which is a dismal statistic.
As many commentators have observed, since the Brexit referendum of 2016 there has been a marked growth in revanchist sentiment in Britain. This has been reflected in British popular culture over the last four years with movies like Dunkirk and 1917 delivering a subliminal nationalist message to audiences at home and in the so-called “Anglosphere”. The latter film in particular, with its careful use of regional British (and Irish) accents and multiracial extras in certain scenes, contrasting with the more uniform appearance of the European enemy, is hardly subtle about the supposed modern parallels it is making. This of course obscures the fact that the British Imperial Forces that faced off against their German rivals in 1914-18 were predominately white, English and Protestant. But why let the facts get in the way of a good political parable?
With the presumed anti-war narrative in the movie 1917 kept deliberately ambiguous, playing second fiddle to a straight – if admittedly traumatic – adventure narrative, greater emphasis is placed on a story of plucky Tommies, less in numbers, less in technology, but high in morality and justice, standing up against a larger and better resourced foe while coming to the aid of oppressed and helpless peoples. Which feeds into the British myth of a nation that played the historical role of armed liberator rather than the historical role of armed occupier.