Britain’s post-Brexit trade: learning from the Edwardian origins of imperial preference

by Brian Varian (Swansea University)

798px-Imperial_Federation,_map_of_the_world_showing_the_extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886
Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Wikimedia Commons

In December 2017, Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, stated that ‘as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships, and usher in a new era where expertise, talent, goods, and capital can move unhindered between our nations in a way that they have not for a generation or more’.

As policy-makers and the public contemplate a return to the halcyon days of the British Empire, there is much to be learned from those past policies that attempted to cultivate trade along imperial lines. Let us consider the effect of the earliest policies of imperial preference: policies enacted during the Edwardian era.

In the late nineteenth century, Britain was the bastion of free trade, imposing tariffs on only a very narrow range of commodities. Consequently, Britain’s free trade policy afforded barely any scope for applying lower or ‘preferential’ duties to imports from the Empire.

The self-governing colonies of the Empire possessed autonomy in tariff-setting and, with the notable exception of New South Wales, did not emulate the mother country’s free trade policy. In the 1890s and 1900s, when the emergent industrial nations of Germany and the United States reduced Britain’s market share in these self-governing colonies, there was indeed scope for applying preferential duties to imports from Britain, in the hope of diverting trade back toward the Empire.

Trade policies of imperial preference were implemented in succession by Canada (1897), the South African Customs Union (1903), New Zealand (1903) and Australia (1907). By the close of the first era of globalisation in 1914, Britain enjoyed some margin of preference in all of the Dominions. Yet my research, a case study of New Zealand, casts doubt on the effectiveness of these polices at raising Britain’s share in the imports of the Dominions.

Unlike the policies of the other Dominions, New Zealand’s policy applied preferential duties to only selected commodity imports (44 out of 543). This cross-commodity variation in the application of preference is useful for estimating the effect of preference. I find that New Zealand’s Preferential and Reciprocal Trade Act of 1903 had no effect on the share of the Empire, or of Britain specifically, in New Zealand’s imports.

Why was the policy ineffective at raising Britain’s share of New Zealand’s imports? There are several likely reasons: that Britain’s share was already quite large; that some imported commodities were highly differentiated and certain varieties were only produced in other industrial countries; and, most importantly, that the margin of preference – the extent to which duties were lower for imports from Britain – was too small to effect any trade diversion.

As Britain considers future trade agreements, perhaps with Commonwealth countries, it should be remembered that a trade agreement does not necessarily entail a great, or even any, increase in trade. The original policies of imperial preference were rather symbolic measures and, at least in the case of New Zealand, economically inconsequential.

Brexit might well present an ‘opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships’, but would that be a reinvigoration in substance or in appearance?

EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 

 

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Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <http://www.admiralnelson.info/Timeline.htm&gt;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.