Imagining Markets: Conceptions of Empire/Commonwealth, Europe and China in Britain’s economic future since the 1870s

Senate House

2nd workshop, London, September 2015- report

Senate House has featured in many guises from being the supposed model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 to Bertie Wooster’s New York apartment block in the TV adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster. This month it played host to the second of three academic workshops connected to the AHRC Imagining Markets network led by David Thackeray, Andrew Thompson and Richard Toye from the University of Exeter. You can read more about the project at

We began by discussing how the idea of economic imagination can shape our understandings of political economy, and how this cultural idea has various facets (imaginings of economic utopias/ dystopias; entrepreneurship; the imagining of status and aspiration). Papers focused on how a variety of actors shaped ideas of the economic future and interconnected through networks at the level of government and the ‘official mind’; business groups; cultural organisations; advertisers; and civil society.

Richard Huzzey discussed Mid-Victorian liberal concerns with the need to morally regulate the economy while promoting market freedoms, noting that the idea of the moral economy being the antithesis of the market economy is problematic. The concept of the ‘night watchman state’, which subsequently came into common use in the 1950s, can be traced back to 1862.

Andrew Dilley explored the culture of business networking within the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the Empire. Established as a body connecting British businessmen with their colleagues in the ‘settler colonies’, it attempted to appeal to audiences in the New Commonwealth after 1945, with limited success. The demise of this body highlights the increasing problems of imagining the Commonwealth as a coherent market by the 1960s and 1970s.

Stephanie Decker outlined the different structures of investments and practices by British, German and American companies in West Africa at the end of empire. The paper suggested the importance of institutional structures in shaping economic imagination. Government support for business abroad and practices of export credits and political risk guarantees played an important role in shaping the conduct of business in the region.

Andrew Smith explored the politics of British external representation in West Africa between 1957-67 (through the BBC and British Council) and how it competed with the rival efforts of other nations (particularly France). British efforts at encouraging foreign opinion formers to ‘think British’ were shaped with wider concerns with reimagining Britain’s economic position in decolonising Africa and countering Francophone opposition to Britain’s efforts to join the EEC.

Anandi Ramamurthy explored the development of fairtrade politics after the establishment of the Max Havelaar Foundation in 1992. The paper considered the relationship between the commodification of the Global South in colonial advertising and contemporary fairtrade campaigns, highlighting the importance of how cultural imaginings of trade relationships embed concepts of race, gender and labour.

Francine McKenzie gave the plenary which focused on the re-establishment of trade relationships between Britain, the Commonwealth, and America after 1945 through the creation of GATT. The paper considered the popular culture of imperial preference and why it became a sticking-point for British negotiators in 1947. By this time, the Commonwealth trade relationship had come to represent a degree of certainty for British politicians, which was lacking in many other markets.

Discussion was lively throughout the day. A key theme that was highlighted was the need to consider how imagined economic futures related to experienced and/or (mis-)remembered economic pasts. The final academic workshop (focused on British trade relations with China), and an accompanying witness seminar will take place in Cambridge in April 2016.

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