Colonialism and Development: Britain and Its Tropical Colonies, 1850-1960

By Michael Havinden; David Meredith | Go to book overview

9

The ‘colonial question’ and towards colonial reform, 1930-40

OTTAWA AND ITS AFTERMATH

The commercial and financial collapse which overwhelmed the British economy in 1930 and 1931 led to two major breaks with past economic policy. In September 1931 a massive haemorrhage of the Bank of England’s gold and foreign exchange reserves caused the gold standard to be jettisoned and the pound to float: within three months it had lost 31 per cent of its gold value. In February 1932, the policy of free trade, which had been the cornerstone of British international commercial practice for at least 70 years, was abandoned as the new National government introduced a general 10 per cent import levy. The end of free trade meant that the government was at long last in a position to introduce a system of imperial tariff preference. The imperial economic conference, scheduled for Ottawa in July, was the venue for implementation of the long-held dream of the ‘imperial visionaries’ of an empire trade bloc. 1

For the tropical colonies, the Ottawa Agreement meant a greater access to the British market in return for greater penetration of British exports of manufactured goods in their markets. Britain was able to give preference to imports from its colonies by allowing them in free of duty while imposing an import duty on the same commodities from non-empire sources. In practice, the benefits to the colonies were insubstan-tial: the foreign product was usually subject to only a 10 per cent impost which in the international conditions of rapidly declining commodity prices in the early 1930s and world over-supply of these commodities, amounted to very little advantage for colonial producers at all. Moreover, in some commodities the colonies produced more than Britain consumed (even in normal times) and thus the preference had virtually no effect on the world price. For certain commodities Britain was not an important market, or not a market at all. In other cases, Britain did not give any preference because it would not impose an import duty on foreign raw materials such as cotton and petroleum oil. In any event, Britain’s demand for imports fell considerably in the

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