BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


Preferences, Episode 78 - 31/05/06


Free trade or Imperial preference? (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Free trade or Imperial preference?
(Getty Images)
View more images

During the early years of Edward VII's short reign, the debate on the future relationship between the mother country and her colonies reached a point of political and colonial in-fighting hardly witnessed in the story of the empire.

It caused a damning schism in the governing Tory party and a future prime minister crossed the floor to become a Liberal. There were three connecting elements in the debate: the ideas of a Greater Britain, Imperial Defence and in the centre, Free Trade.

Free Trade had been the fulcrum of the British economy for six decades. By 1904 there was one hypothesis that the British economy had strengthened and if colonies got together, they could trade among themselves and not need to trade with high protectionist countries like America, Russia and France.

There were two schools: those for Free Trade (men like Asquith) and, those who wanted import tariffs but give preferential treatment to the empire (e.g. Chamberlain).

Part of Chamberlain's argument was that trade with the empire was growing. He was wrong. Import export figures between Britain and the colonies had hardly changed for half a century. In fact India was Britain best's export customer and German was second.

And certainly the Indian view was that Chamberlain's ideas sounded good on paper, but when that paper was held up to the light, the watermark of its economics was distorted.

There is evidence that Chamberlain deliberately presented trade figures in his speeches in the expectation that no one would closely check them. He was not alone in this lapse of presentational truth. The debate was so intense and important that both sides diddled dossiers to suit their causes.

So divisive was the matter that the Tory Prime Minister Balfour was forced to sack half his Cabinet; and it was the Free Trade debate that prompted Winston Churchill to leave the Conservative Party and join the Liberals.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Arthur Balfour (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Arthur Balfour
(Getty Images)
View more images

Arthur James, 1st Earl of Balfour, 1848-1930

The son of an ancient East Lothian family and his mother was Salisbury's sister. Following the route of Eton & Cambridge, Balfour first sat for Hertford in 1878 and within two years was his uncle's private secretary. In 1886 he was secretary for Scotland, then significantly, Ireland (1887).

During 1892-3 Balfour became First Lord of the Treasury and Tory leader in the Commons, Salisbury, the PM, being in the Lords. On Salisbury's resignation he became PM (1902-1906). In the Firs World War Cabinet he was First Lord of the Admiralty (after Churchill) and then between 1916-1919 was Lloyd George's Foreign Secretary. It was in that office that he made in 1917 the still sometimes controversial, Balfour Declaration promising Zionists a home in Palestine.

Back to top

Did You Know...

That many believed that Arthur Balfour became Prime Minister because his uncle, Lord (Robert) Salisbury passed on the job to him. This was the origin on the expression Bob's Your Uncle - meaning easily fixed.

Back to top

Have Your Say

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:

Comment on Europe & M. East

There are currently no messages.

Back to top

Contemporary Sources

The Free Trade movement opposed the spread of Imperial preference, William Farrer Ecroyd MP was a passionate free-trader ...

"We do not want protection against our foreign competitors. (I write as a manufacturer). We will cheerfully compete with all-comers; and if the French or others can beat us in some specialities, all honour to them. No nation can be vain enough to expect to excel the world at every point, surely.

We do not want retaliations; a complex system of import duties, graduated to meet the varying follies of foreign protectionists, would be a remedy too silly for discussion. We do not want an import duty levied on the raw materials of our industries; that would be a simple act of suicide. We do not want the coercion of our colonies and dependencies into a free-trade policy; that would be to provoke resentment where we ought to attract and conciliate."

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy