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Imperial Preferences, Episode 77 - 30/05/06


Joseph Chamberlain.(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Joseph Chamberlain
(Getty Images)
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At the start of the 20th century there was hardly a country outside continental Europe, which did not find their neighbours under some form of British influence. Consequently, trading between colonies and independent states extended British commercial opportunities.

Furthermore, Britain controlled the economic valuation of the world because many important trading nations had succumbed to Britain's insistence on a gold standard. Britain traded with gold as the convertible currency of Sterling. So in theory, the British could govern every aspect of the colonies. In practice, this was increasingly unlikely to continue. For example, why should Canada not have had a special trading relationship with America? But if America had special trading relations, then tariff barriers might be established to the detriment of others in the Empire. Independent colonial ambition could weaken the Empire's strongest point - economics. Subsequently, in late 19th and early 20th century Britain, there emerged the notion of empire government - a constitutional exercise in federalism. As colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain saw this as the grand scheme that would bring all the colonies together at some huge round table. Chamberlain was really asking the Cabinet to accept a concept of a Greater Britain.

Chamberlain believed that the British Empire was in danger of going the way of other empires. He was also of the opinion that like past imperial masters, the British could disappear to no one's great regret and be seen as having accomplished nothing more than selfish rule over a quarter of the globe. So by the end of the 19th century, the concept of Greater Britain was at least a debating point. Chamberlain's thinking went beyond the free trade policies he thought could be self-defeating and which the Treasury instinctively adhered to. In 1902 Chamberlain was saying that Britain could no longer afford to practice economic pedantry as he called free trade. Britain, Chamberlain said, had to realise that unless she co-operated with her colonies and so kept British trade in British hands, then economic disaster would follow. Empire mattered only because her markets mattered.

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Historical Figure

Joseph Chamberlain (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Joseph Chamberlain
(Getty Images)
View more images

Chamberlain Joseph, 1836-1914

Chamberlain was a Londoner who made his fortune in manufacturing in the Midlands and in 1868 became a Birmingham town councillor and later mayor. In 1876 he was elected MP for Birmingham and within four years joined the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. His programmes for free schooling and tax law revision placed him firmly in the Radical leadership. He resigned from Gladstone's administration over Irish Home Rule. He joined the coalition of 1895 as Colonial Secretary and only resigned in 1903 to champion tariff reform - preferential treatment (Imperial Preferences) to the colonies and local businesses. His public life was curtailed by ill-health and his reforms never enacted in his lifetime

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Did You Know...

Even at the height of Empire, Conservative Central Office had to give its MPs pages of party-line notes under the title, Empire - Notes for Speakers, to counter anti-Empire feelings.

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Events of this episode took place in Europe & M. East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

Conservative Central Office issued a pamphlet called Empire - Notes for Speakers to boost support for the imperial cause:
"The importance of the colonies for our trade can hardly be overestimated. About two sevenths of the total amount of imports come from British possessions which took from us two fifths of the whole of our exports.

When the nature of our empire is borne in mind, when it is remembered that there is hardly a product it cannot supply, that we can get corn, meat, and timber from Canada; wine, meat, wool, and coal from Australia; rice, tea, coffee, silk, cotton, and spices from India and the eastern islands; iron and coal from England; wool and minerals from South Africa; sugar from the West Indies, and tobacco from Borneo, it is seen that we go near to realizing the conception of self-sufficing state."

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