Recently, members of The Commonwealth of Nations (still often referred to as The British Commonwealth) met in London to discuss the feasibility of a post-Brexit trade deal. The idea that Britain ought to have closer trade relations with The Commonwealth rather than Europe is not a new idea, in fact it predates the European Union by half a century.
The idea first came to pass in the late 19th century. Liberal Imperialist politician turned Conservative/Unionist Joseph Chamberlain proposed tariff reform often called Empire Free Trade/Imperial Preference.
Chamberlain’s movement became incredibly popular but ended up facing opposition among free-trading Liberals and Conservatives who had gradually adopted the liberal free trade orthodoxy of the high Victorian era. It is what lead Winston Churchill, an ardent free trader to leave the Conservatives/Unionist and join the Liberal Party in 1904.
Because at the turn of the 20th century, Britain was facing competition in the market for industrial goods by a united German Reich and a surging United States, many felt that it was imperative to put tariffs up in order to protect the British manufacturing sector. I’m sure this sounds familiar to anyone who followed the US Presidential election of 2016.
Because Britain’s Empire contained many important natural resources, the idea was to set up a locked market whereby the Empire would provide raw materials to be manufactured in Britain. Meanwhile goods from outside the British Empire would face high tariff walls.
Debates over tariff reform raged until things came to a head in Ottawa in 1932. The British Empire Economic Conference put some of Chamberlain’s initial ideas into place. However, the coming of War in 1939 and the Bretton-Woods system established thereafter, more or less put an end to the high ideals of Empire Free Trade.
The post-imperial British Commonwealth continued to trade with the UK, but by the early 1960s, many in Britain, especially in the Conservative party saw the future increasingly with Europe.
When Britain finally joined the EEC/Common Market in 1973, many felt, rather accurately, that the Commonwealth had been abandoned. Julian Amery in particular, felt that Britain ought to act as a conduit between the Commonwealth and Europe, but this was not to be.
With Britain seemingly on its slow journey out of the European Union, the issue is back in the spot-light. The difference now is that many former colonies have the upper hand.
Australia’s dependence on South Asian economies, Canada’s trade deals with the United States, South Africa’s membership of the BRICS and India’s status as a far more dynamic economy than Britain or the EU (in addition to its BRICS membership), means that London won’t have the upper hand in negotiations.
However, it is equally foolish to imply that such a thing should not be attempted. Although British de-colonisation was at times an ugly process, former British colonies have on the whole fared better than many French colonies who still see Paris exercising some control over their economies. Furthermore, it could be a way of exposing Britain to the modernrealities of the multi-polar world it once ruled a great deal of as a hegemonic power.
Likewise, the so-called White Commonwealth, continues to feel some ethnic and therefore fraternal bonds to the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (whether British Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic).
Once again it is Liberals in the UK Parliament who show they haven’t the imagination to even ask the right questions of nations that speak English and have similar legal systems to those in the UK.
Sadly the arrogance of high imperialism has been replaced with the arrogance of narrow liberalism.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.