The politics of buying British: From the Great Depression to Brexit

Sydney empire shopping week poster, 1928

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Since the Brexit vote the ‘Anglosphere’ has featured prominently in debates about the UK’s future trade strategy. It may seem odd that the CANZUK countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have featured so prominently in these discussions. After all, combined together these countries accounted for less than four percent of UK exports in 2017. While Brexiteers may talk wistfully of reviving trade with these ‘old friends’, their efforts build on a problematic historical legacy.

In the 1920s and 1930s various efforts were made to encourage consumers to support trade between ‘British’ countries, based on ties of race. This was only one of a range of attempts to promote ethnically-based trade communities. For example, rival Buy Indian and Buy Chinese movements connected diaspora populations across the British Empire. At much the same time, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association promoted the idea of ‘buying black’, a cause which was subsequently adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.

The practice of running empire shopping weeks was started by the British Women’s Patriotic League in 1923, and subsequently endorsed in the UK by the government-sponsored Empire Marketing Board. Shoppers were encouraged to exercise a voluntary preference for national and imperial goods. The shopping week movement extended into Australia in 1925, and reached Canada and South Africa in 1928. However, the language of empire shopping varied significantly between countries. Within the UK and Australia there was much focus on promoting links across the ‘British’ race at home and overseas. However, the question of the ‘British’ character of empire shopping proved more controversial in Canada, with its large French-speaking Québecois population, and in South Africa, where Afrikaners outnumbered the descendants of British settlers.

By and large, empire shopping weeks died out quickly outside of the UK, losing public interest to consumer movements focused on supporting the purchase of national goods. Industrialists and politicians were keen to assert a ‘Britannic’ identity in the 1930s, albeit one that was shaped by national interests and priorities, particularly concerning race and economic development, rather than the objectives of the London-based Empire Marketing Board. For instance, the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures used the centenary of the foundation of their state in 1934 to present the cause of developing national industry via protective tariffs as building on the pioneering spirit of early British settlers. The centenary exhibition catalogue’s racialised imagery starkly contrasts the modernity of white pioneers with the supposed primitivism of indigenous peoples.

Souvenir official catalogue of the Centenary All-Australian Exhibition (Melbourne, 1934), front and back cover

Ultimately, efforts to promote the idea of ‘Buying British’ were self-defeating. Attempts to promote the idea of a ‘British’ imperial trade community served to highlight the exclusion of marginal groups from full participation in its activities. In turn, this stimulated the development of competing patriotic trade campaigns, in which non-white imperial subjects challenged British economic leadership by presenting themselves as part of alternative economic communities connected across and beyond imperial spaces. Gandhi’s championing of khadi production linked the purchasing of cloth to Indian identity. Khadi exhibitions highlighted the injustices of imperial rule. Scenes of national trial became a staple of exhibition lantern-slide shows, such as the local population’s subjection to ‘crawling orders’ following the Amritsar Massacre, or depictions of Gandhi’s struggles to gain equality for the Indian merchant community in South Africa. The idea of promoting patriotic buying to diaspora communities attracted widespread interest from Indian National Congress leaders. In 1937 alone, Jawaharlal Nehru met with Indians living in Burma and Malaya and promoted a boycott of Zanzibar cloves in protest at a British monopoly crowding out Asian growers. Moreover, he called for a boycott of Japanese goods in sympathy with Chinese people living under occupation.

Visit by Nehru to the Indian Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, 22 May 1937

Regardless of what trading environment emerges after Brexit, what seems most striking about debates about the future of trade in Britain since June 2016 is how little voices from the ‘new’ Commonwealth have featured. What is essentially a debate about the global economy plays out in the British media largely as a story of national politics, with occasional interventions from CANZUK, America and other leading foreign powers. In 2018 India is likely to overtake Britain as the Commonwealth’s leading economic power and the UK is set to leaving the world’s largest free trade zone the following year. Debates about patriotic trade within the interwar British empire/commonwealth were shaped by Bombay and Singapore, as well as London, Cape Town and Sydney. If Britain struggled to call the shots when  promoting Commonwealth trade co-operation in the 1930s the task is going to be a lot harder after 2019.


David Thackeray is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Exeter. This blog draws on his article: ‘Buying for Britain, China, or India? Patriotic trade, ethnicity, and market in the 1930s British empire/Commonwealth’, published in the Journal of Global History in November 2017.  

5 thoughts on “The politics of buying British: From the Great Depression to Brexit

  1. Two points occur to me – first that when Britain joined Europe she dumped her Commonwealth partners and they had to find new markets for their products; mostly with great success.
    Secondly Britain manufactures very little these days – so what pray are we selling?

  2. The fact you’re even bothering to talk about CANZUK, speaks volumes, although most of this article is pure drivel.

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