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. Continue reading “The politics of buying British: From the Great Depression to Brexit”→
As long as Theresa May’s Conservative government is representing the UK at the Brexit negotiating table, Britain’s imperial past will continue to haunt its European withdrawal. The ghost that looms largest is none other than the prime minister’s “political hero” and “new lodestar”, Birmingham’s turn-of-the-century imperial protectionist, Joseph Chamberlain.
Based on historical experiences, what economic opportunities might the Commonwealth of Nations offer a post-Brexit Britain?
As the UK seeks a new place in the global economy post-Brexit, the Commonwealth of Nations is often touted as a possible alternative. In a week in which Commonwealth leaders meet the Commonwealth Trade Conference, historians, policy makers and other experts meet to consider the potential of Commonwealth economic relations in historical perspective.
CHAIR: Dr Marc-William Palen, Lecturer, University of Exeter and Co-director, Global Economics and History Forum (History & Policy)
Tim Hewish, Director of Policy & Research, The Royal Commonwealth Society and Co-Founder, Commonwealth Exchange
Dr Surender Munjal, Director, James E. Lynch India and South Asia Business Centre, University of Leeds
Dr Andrew Dilley, Senior Lecturer, University of Aberdeen and Co-director, Global Economics and History Forum (History & Policy)
Plenty of attention is being paid to the political and constitutional effects of Brexit, but what will its economic impact be on life’s most basic commodities? How did food prices inform the debate in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum, and how have they informed debate in the past? How have the spectres of want and hunger been invoked over the last century and a half in political contexts, and are we paying them enough attention now?
Debating these questions will be five historians and policy makers with combined expertise covering the period since the 1840s, the “Hungry Forties,” which live in political memory as the UK’s last serious sustained period of food poverty. The discussion is aimed at policy makers and practitioners working in the area of food poverty and food security, and aims to show how lessons from the past can inform decision-making today. Continue reading “Brexit and food prices: the legacy of the Hungry Forties”→
On Thursday 23 June 2016 the British electorate voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union (EU). On election night the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage declared this to be Britain’s ‘independence day.’ With ‘independence day’ on pro-Brexit lips, US pundits have been quick to connect 2016 with 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski, for example, was among the first ‘to welcome the mother country to our revolution.’ And, in a similar act of transatlantic camaraderie, the Republican magazine National Review has accordingly rebranded the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence as ‘Amerexit.’
Critics have since been quick to point out some of the big historical problems with proclaiming the 23rd June as Britain’s ‘independence day’, including the common association between it and the outbreak of the American Revolution. And of course it’s worth noting that the EU referendum vote and the American Revolution (1775-1783) have obvious differences, not least that in the former the question of independence was settled by the ballot box, whilst in the latter it was decided by the barrel of a gun. Nevertheless, let’s assume for the moment that there are some useful comparisons to be drawn between the American Revolution and Brexit. If so, is 1776 the ideal date for comparison, as many pundits have recently suggested? I would suggest instead that events during the latter years of the American Revolution share far more in common with today. Continue reading “Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’”→
Amid much discussion of alternatives to Britain’s current relationship with Europe, the Canadian, Norwegian, and Swiss models have featured widely. But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the closest historical model of what Brexiteers might hail as ‘a free trade Europe’.
The first version of a ‘common market’ based on free trade treaties was created in Europe in the 1860s. Following the signing of the 1860 Anglo-French (Cobden-Chevalier) commercial treaty, a further 50-60 interlocking trade treaties were negotiated between European states, in effect creating a free trade area, the closest Europe got to a single market before the 1970s.
The economic benefits of this first common market are still contested by economic historians, but, as a model of a loose institutional framework it successfully lowered tariffs between participating states (only Russia of major European states remained outside it).
And at first glance this treaty network appears remarkably similar to the goals of those wishing to avoid a European super state in favour of simpler trade-based relationships. However, the fate of this model should be less than encouraging for the Leave campaign. Continue reading “Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History”→
Billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves recently claimed that leaving the EU could be likened to the British evacuation from Dunkirk in late May 1940. This withdrawal signalled the British retreat from the continent and immediately preceded the French capitulation to German forces two weeks later. Hargreaves declared, “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again.”
As a scholar of rhetoric and the Second World War, I have become particularly attuned to how conflict is used and abused by politicians as a means to convince the British public of the value of a particular issue. Most recently, Tory politicians and campaigners like Hargreaves have mobilised Britain’s role in the Second World War as a justification to vote either for or against staying in the European Union (EU). This type of rhetoric is, at its core, emotive and nostalgic. It’s also deeply troubling because such oversimplified ideas of national identity and wartime patriotism are circumventing any chance of having a meaningful discussion about how Brexit would or would not change life on this island nation. It also ignores the fact that the Second World War was a global conflict, however much that might challenge ingrained nationalistic nostalgia. Continue reading “Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia”→